Eight more days ’til Halloween,
Eight more days ’til Halloween,
One night in an unnamed Northern California town a rather frightened individual named Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) is being chased by a group of mysterious men in business suits. After eluding them in an auto junkyard, Harry passes out in a gas station. An attendant brings him to the local hospital where Harry mutters, “They’re coming to kill us all.” Looking over their newest patient is Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins, my real father – hey a guy can dream, can’t he?), the hospital’s resident boozing swinging dick. While handsome Doctor Dan is distracted one of those fine business suit-wearing psychopaths slips in and crushes Harry’s skull with his bare hands! Then he gets into his car and sets himself on fire, much to the shock of everyone watching, including the puzzled Doctor Dan.
The next day Harry’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) arrives from Los Angeles to identify his body. The death of her father inspires Ellie to do some investigating and her research leads her to Silver Shamrock, a company that specializes in making Halloween masks that have become the year’s big seller. Apparently her father ran a toy store that did business with Silver Shamrock and he was gripping one of their masks the night he was brought into the hospital. Ellie decides to travel to Silver Shamrock’s headquarters in the sleepy town of Santa Mira and get some answers, but she needs the help of our hero Doctor Dan. He reluctantly agrees to take her there and once they have arrived our intrepid duo find Santa Mira to be a little strange and uncomfortable. For one thing, the entire town is under surveillance. The town’s citizens, all of whom either love the Silver Shamrock company or live in fear of it, are very suspicious of the new arrivals. In addition to Doctor Dan and Ellie, other visitors to Santa Mira include another toy store owner with a beef against the company and a toy salesman and his family who have been invited to the factory for a meeting with Silver Shamrock’s elusive owner Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy). It’s not long before Doctor Dan and Ellie discover that Cochran has devised a insidious plot to kill every child in the country with the Silver Shamrock masks. Can our heroes stop his evil plans in time? Are they too late?
Season of the Witch is neither a bad movie nor an underappreciated horror masterpiece; instead it resides awkwardly in the middle. At its core the movie has an interesting concept and after several viewings I would hardly consider it a complete loss. Yet at no point during Halloween III does the intriguing story ever really take off. Given the filmmaking pedigree involved it tends to be upon your initial watch a major disappointment. The story was originally conceived by Nigel Kneale, the creator of the popular Quatermass series, but was altered substantially before shooting began by director Wallace and producers Carpenter and Hill forcing Kneale to remove his name from the credits. It was a wise decision because no respectable writer wants to be associated with the muddled mess Hollywood makes of something he put a lot of heart and thought into. Make no mistake, Halloween III is a mess, albeit a mostly entertaining one.
You have to give Wallace, Carpenter, and Hill credit for wanting to do something different with the series despite the protestations of their colleagues. By the end of the first sequel the Michael Myers storyline had been milked as much as they thought possible. Carpenter didn’t want the monster he helped create become another mindless slasher franchise. That shows a lot of love and respect for everyone who worked hard on the first two Halloween movies. Thus it’s not hard to understand why John Carpenter ended his involvement with the series after the failure of Season of the Witch. When that movie flopped at the box office the producers who remained immediately retreated back to the tried-and-true formula of Michael Myers stalking and killing horny teenagers. So much for the grand experiment.
As I’ve stated before there is a lot to be enjoyed in Halloween III, starting with the better-than-average performances. The great Tom Atkins gets his chance to shine in a rare lead role and shine he does. He brings a sense of believability to his role, an friendly Everyman quality that makes it easy to root for Doctor Dan, which is good because on the page the character is pretty two-dimensional. We don’t know much about the guy other than he’s a divorced father who loves a stiff drink and a hot lady. It’s up to Atkins to project character in his thinly-written part and he comes off like a champ. Stacey Nelkin isn’t given much to do in the thankless role of Doctor Dan’s love interest Ellie. Her character starts out somewhat strong with some important involvement in the story but naturally she ends up becoming a damsel in distress. It’s a shame because Nelkin is a fine actress who brings a hint of sadness and vulnerability to her role which is sketched even thinner than Atkins’.
Then there’s the late Dan O’Herlihy as the odious madman Conal Cochran. Probably best known here in the states for his voluminous television work dating back to the 1950’s and his performances in 1980’s genre favorites Robocop and The Last Starfighter, the venerable Irish actor makes for a fine ghoulish villain. O’Herlihy gives Cochran a shrewd blend of malevolence and charisma, both necessary attributes for creating a memorable horror film adversary. The actor died in 2005; his presence is missed.
I also have to mention the wonderful and deliciously sick blood and gore effects sprinkled throughout the film at the appropriate times. There are several great gore gags to liven up the proceedings, whether it be a ripped-off head with lots of gooey sound effects or some choice skull crushing. There are even a few melting heads for your viewing enjoyment with some gross bugs and snakes thrown in for good measure. Not the kind of gore you’d find in a movie associated with the Halloween name, the effects reminded me at times of the similarly gruesome and imaginative practical effects work on the horror-tinged sci-fi flicks that were emerging in the wake of the success of Alien. It’s no surprise that Halloween III came out only a few months after Carpenter’s own The Thing (an undisputed classic in my opinion). There are many striking similarities in the effects.
Then there’s the awesome score by Carpenter and his frequent collaborator Alan Howarth. Keeping beautifully in line with the synth-heavy music Carpenter often scores for his own films, the music in Halloween III underscores the on-screen action without ever overtaking it. The simple but effective electronic beats do the job wonderfully and could make some great creepy dance music. I replayed the end credits several times just to hear the music. The score is so good that it’s hard to say why it doesn’t get as much love and respect among the director’s fans as his other musical work. Then there’s that annoyingly omnipresent Silver Shamrock theme song; it doesn’t always bother me as much as other people I know who’ve seen this movie, but too much of it will grate your nerves and have you begging for one of Cochran’s masks before it’s all over.
Here’s a sampling of the Carpenter/Howarth score.
Finally I have to praise the great and atmospheric widescreen cinematography by the brilliant Dean Cundey. Cundey has shot some of John Carpenter’s best films including The Fog, The Thing, Escape from New York, and of course the original Halloween. His always impeccable camera work gives Halloween III a dark and serene beauty appropriate for the story. Cundey is never less than at the top of his game and his work speaks for itself. Halloween III looks so much like a vintage Carpenter film that I had to keep looking at the DVD case from time to time to remind me that he didn’t direct this film.
For devoted horror fans there’s a bit of fun to be had spotting the little cameos and bit parts from some recognizable faces of 1980’s horror. As Santa Mira’s resident wino Starker Jonathan Terry is probably best known for playing the stern Colonel Glover in the first two Return of the Living Dead movies. Al Berry, who can be seen at the beginning playing Harry Grimbridge (great name), played the unfortunate Dr. Gruber at the opening of Re-Animator (he was the poor sucker Herbert West first tried the re-agent on, the one with the exploding bloody eyeballs). Joshua Miller can be briefly seen as one of Doctor Dan’s spoiled rotten kids and he’s best known for playing another great horror movie brat, Homer the constantly bitching kid vampire from the classic Near Dark. Viewers with Daredevil-level hearing will spot the voice of Jamie Lee Curtis several times in the movie.
Now I have to mention some of the flaws of Season of the Witch, which are considerable but don’t bring the movie down much. They’re all centered around the plot; despite having an intriguing hook the filmmakers were never able to fully explore the concept. Now I’m not someone who needs to have everything constantly spelled out for them. I’m a somewhat intelligent person and I rather enjoy thinking. But the story has so many holes that you wish they would let us in a little on certain aspects of the plot. Halloween III plays out like several key scenes offering us a window into the machinations of the story were left on the cutting room floor.
What really bothered me was that the writers didn’t bother at all to Cochran some kind of sensible motivation for his evil plans. Why exactly did he want to melt the heads of every child in America? What would that accomplish? Because he wanted revenge for some reason? Because he could? Although Cochran does mention that he loves a good joke and sees his plan as the ultimate joke, it sounds like a cop-out even when he talks about how people have lost touch with the true meaning of Halloween. Also, besides our protagonists Doctor Dan and Ellie there aren’t really any other likable characters in the film to root for, and those characters who aren’t unbearable dickwads usually die early or later in the film but only after they’ve served their function in the story. You actually want them to die so you don’t have to deal with their sorry-ass presence anymore. The kids in the movie are especially annoying, a bunch of whiny little brats you can’t wait to see get their heads melted. Of course kids in movies who aren’t horrible brats are very rare even these days.
What exactly does Stonehenge have to do with this story? When Cochran’s robotic foot soldiers capture Doctor Dan and Ellie he has them taken to his underground lair where a huge piece that was stolen from Stonehenge is displayed prominently in the middle of the room. In fact the parts of Halloween III‘s plot that aren’t explained feel like they were ripped off from much better movies that came before. Cochran’s plans to replace human beings with emotionless robots reek of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; plus the film’s main setting, Santa Mira, was also the setting for the original Invasion. There’s even a nod to Alien when Doctor Dan knocks the head off one of Cochran’s robots with a tire iron, a direct rip of the moment in Ridley Scott’s classic when the android Ash literally gets his block knocked off. The story at times bears some resemblance to Italian horror maestro Lucio Fulci’s walking dead epics Zombie and City of the Living Dead.
But I have to give major credit to the filmmakers for at the very least delivering a bang-up ending that never pussies out and stays true to the best traditions of horror storytelling. Tommy Lee Wallace, a longtime associate and collaborator of John Carpenter, does an otherwise fine job for his first time in the director’s chair. He keeps the absurd plot moving and rarely allows for the pace to lag. It’s a shame his filmmaking career never amounted to much more than some mediocre sequels (Fright Night Part II, Vampires: Los Muertos) and a few decent Stephen King adaptations for television, but for what’s it worth watching Carpenter work definitely taught Wallace well.
Shout! Factory presents Halloween III in a newly-remastered anamorphic widescreen transfer in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The picture is clean with sufficient amounts of grain and no noticeable print damage and is rich with gorgeous West Coast autumnal hues and deep black nighttime shadows. Cundey’s cinematography has never looked finer. No subtitles are provided.
Though the movie’s synthesizer score and gruesome sound effects would have gotten a terrific boost from a 5.1 track the two-channel Dolby Digital mono audio track provided on this disc does perform adequately by the movie in every other department.
Shout!’s reputation for giving the majority of their celluloid acquisitions the deluxe treatment on DVD and Blu-ray is strongly represented on this much anticipated release of Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The bountiful supplements kick off with a pair of brand new audio commentaries. The first features director Wallace and Mike G. of Icons of Fright talking about the film and its difficult development and production as well as the initial reception from disappointed franchise fans and the cult following it has built up over the years. It’s a fine track but too subdued at times and Wallace often has to be prodded into saying anything of note pertaining to the movie.
The second commentary has Tom Atkins front and center sharing his thoughts and anecdotes from the movie with DVD producer Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures. Anyone who has ever seen an interview with Atkins knows the man’s going to make plenty of frank and hilarious observations, and as expected the man delivers. Together with Felsher the living legend that is Tom Atkins has a blast taking us through his experiences on Halloween III and his excitement about the film’s newfound appreciation as part of the Halloween legacy. It’s a great track that further enhances the deranged pleasures of watching the movie. My only complaint, and to be honest it’s a relatively minor one, is that the volume level of the Atkins/Felsher commentary tends to be so low at times that I had to jack up the volume on my television just to be able to hear what they’re saying, especially considering that the Wallace commentary is far easier to hear without making any volume adjustments between it and the film’s mono track.
Next up is the all-new retrospective documentary “Stand Alone: The Making of Halloween III – Season of the Witch” (33 minutes). A good number of the cast and production crew including Wallace, Atkins, Nelkin, Cundey, executive producer Irwin Yablans, and stuntman Dick Warlock (who also played Michael Myers in Halloween II and had an on-camera role as one of Cochran’s killer yuppie drones) have gathered to recount the shooting of the movie and its cult following. You won’t find much fascinating new revelations about Halloween III that chances are you already knew, but most of the participants in this featurette are in good spirits sharing their remembrances of working on this unusual motion picture and fortunately for us are prone to expressing their strange amusement at the plot of the movie and how modern audiences have embraced it. Red Shirt Pictures produced “Stand Alone” and as always their extensive work is to be commended.
Following that is an edition of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds (20 minutes) in which host Ryan Clark revisits some of the filming locations for Halloween III and see how they appear today in comparison to thirty years ago. Joining him for several locations is director Wallace, and even Robert Rusler of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and Weird Science makes a special appearance. This is a solid short for those of you interested in such thing and Clark makes for a fine host.
A rather dull stills gallery consisting mostly of production photos with a few domestic and international posters thrown into the mix, theatrical and teaser trailers, and three television spots – two to promote the theatrical release and one to promote the television broadcast premiere – close out the extras. The DVD also comes with reversible cover art; on the other side you’ll find a reproduction of the original movie poster image for Halloween III.
Remember the glory days of VHS?
All in all I consider Halloween III: Season of the Witch despite its many flaws to be weirdly original and entertaining sci-fi/horror flick. Although it’s highly derivative of better genre films to come before it you might enjoy it immensely if you embrace it not as a conventional narrative film (albeit one with a very bizarre story) but as the delirious fever dream of a group of kids with fantastical minds who spend their childhoods reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and watching the Saturday afternoon Creature Double Features on their local UHF stations. At least the filmmakers tried to do something different and in this day and age where originality and vision are sacrificed on the altar of the bottom line that’s something to commend. Plus it also makes me want to watch an actual John Carpenter movie, or put some of his music on my CD player. I have no complaints with that at all.
Shout! Factory has once again done an outstanding job with their DVD for Season of the Witch, giving an underrated film a top-notch audio and video transfer and a healthy array of sweet supplemental features. If you’re looking for something unpredictable to watch this All Hallows’ Eve you could do a whole lot worse.