Having killed off Michael Myers at the climax of Halloween II (1981), producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill went back to an idea they had after Halloween (1978) had been such a huge success – to make a series of films set around Halloween but not featuring Michael Myers, films that could in themselves have led to further spin-offs and sequels. First – and as it turned out, last – out of the gate was Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a bold experiment that sadly didn’t click with the public and really deserved a lot better than it got.
A terrified man (Al Berry) flees through for his life through the streets of a small Northern California town on 23 October, pursued by implacable, well-dressed assassins, one of who tracks him to a nearby hospital and murders him when he escapes their clutches. His doctor, Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), is approached by the man’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) who tells him about strange goings on that her father was investigating involving Silver Shamrock Novelties, a company based in the town of Santa Mira, California. They investigate and find that the company, run by Irish entrepreneur Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), have been making Halloween masks that are booby trapped with electronic devices made with minerals taken from a stone stolen from Stonehenge. As Cochran and his army of humanoid robots prepare to trigger the devices through a television advert Challis and Ellie race against time to stop him from murdering tens of thousands of children.
The script for Halloween III had its roots in a screenplay written for Carpenter by Nigel Kneale who was in Hollywood with time to kill after a planned remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon he’d been working on collapsed. He later complained that director Tommy Lee Wallace rewrote much of what he’d come up with and although it’s hard to tell exactly what was left of his original, Halloween III certainly bears some uniquely Knealean traces. The business about the supernatural being made explicable by science in particular is right up his street – in particular, with its thread about the theft of one of the stones from Stonehenge, echoes themes from The Stone Tape (1972) and the final Quatermass (1979) serial.
Whoever was responsible for the bulk of it, the story is completely nuts. We never really get a handle on what Corcoran’s end game is, why he wants to kill so many children. It feels like sheer vindictiveness – “Do I need a reason?” he muses when Challis straight out asks him what the point of it all is which seems a bit like a cop out. There’s some business about him resenting the commercialisation of the former Celtic festival of Samhain (unlike Donald Pleasence in Halloween II, Dan O’Herlihy knows how to pronounce it correctly) but it seems a trivial reason to spend so much money and effort on the massacre of America’s ungrateful children.
But while the reasons behind the conspiracy remain obscure, Halloween III is certainly never predictable. Every time you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on and where it’s going, it does something completely unexpected. What starts as a mystery snowballs into a conspiracy that ends on an apocalyptic note and the combined effects of the mask and the television broadcast is satisfyingly nasty though one can’t help but wonder where all the snakes and insects came from…
Carpenter‘s own films frequently took a political bent in the 1980s and here’s there’s a hint of disdain for the commercialisation of innocent enough holidays, the script, credited to Wallace, taking aim at the mindless consumerism that often rears its ugly head around any national holiday. Corcoran preys on children’s need to have the latest toy craze (1982 was the year of the Cabbage Patch Kids hysteria) and uses the insidious nature of television advertising to his own ends.
The film owes more to the conspiracy thrillers of the 1950s like Don Siegal’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – the town there was also named Santa Mira – than it does to the slasher movies that the first Halloween inspired. Carpenter frequently touched on the horror of conformism in his own films – the gangs in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape from New York (1981), the aliens in They Live (1988), the alien children of Village of the Damned (1995) – and here we have Corcoran’s army of besuited robots.
Tom Atkins is back from The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York and has to struggle with some daft business about an henpecking ex-wife that we never see but who seems to be constantly phoning him to nag him. Stacey Nelkin is given a thinly written role that she doesn’t seem to know what to do with – she’s OK but isn’t given a lot to do – and listen carefully and you’ll recognise an uncredited Jamie Lee Curtis providing the voice for the curfew announcement and Santa Mira’s automated telephone system. But Dan O’Herlihy is the film’s most valuable player, giving a fantastic performance as Cochran (“he invented sticky toilet paper” a fawning salesman gushes), a twinkly-eyed joker with a penchant for the mass slaughter of innocents.
Time has been kind to Halloween III – for all its flaws it’s far and away the best of the Halloween sequels and its failure at the box office and the subsequent reversion of the series to the tired slasher narrative are matters of great regret. It’s also blessed with one of Carpenter and Alan Haworth’s best scores, a fantastic, sequencer-driven piece that’s right up there with Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York.