After the well of the Halloween franchise’s possibilities had been emptied thoroughly by the pedestrian Halloween II, John Carpenter came up with the idea of branching off into new territory with an extended series of original stories, built around the Halloween mythology, hinted at in that first sequel with its deployment of Celtic myth and the festival of Samhain as a secret motivation for Michael Myers. This offered a plethora of potential themes and stories to riff on, and Carpenter had luck in securing a screenplay by the doyen of eerie, Nigel Kneale, then visiting Los Angeles on a request from John Landis to write a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Kneale’s script was, however, considerably rewritten with commercial intent, reportedly at Dino de Laurentiis’ behest, and credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace, who had been a production mainstay on Carpenter’s earlier films. The result was a relative financial failure that temporarily killed the series and was dismissed with near-abhorrence by critics and fans for a long time before gaining a belated following.
What respect Halloween III: Season of the Witch does get is usually accorded to what’s left of Kneale’s original concept, which is indeed singularly brilliant and morbidly threatening. There’s actually quite a lot of Kneale’s familiar obsessions remnant in the story, with similarities to Quatermass II (a remote town as basis for sinister operations by a malevolent company) and Quatermass and the Pit and The Stone Tape (ancient relics containing massive, scientifically exploitable resources of power), as well as Kneale’s usual interest in satirising conceited organisations and philosophies like militarism and corporatism – which ought to have accorded well with Carpenter’s sensibility. It’s this last part that’s relevant to the sting Halloween III: Season of the Witch undoubtedly possesses, as Irish toy manufacturer Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), through his sizable and prosperous Silver Shamrock factory located in Santa Mira, California - the location also of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a reference that is certainly not accidental – has successfully flooded America with his popular, ceaselessly advertised masks.
The twist, or the practical joke as Cochran would have it, is that his masks are weapons of cabalistic murder, implanted with shavings from a block of Stonehenge that unleash flesh-eating insects and snakes in an emanation of stygian evil that will cause horrific general slaughter, as Cochran’s new-age tribute to his ancestral creeds. This devilishly clever project however takes a long time to be made explicable, coming across less as truly engaged satire on the commericialisation of holidays based in ancient creeds and spirituality than as a mere MacGuffin. For the most part Season of the Witch is badly hamstrung by a low budget and a flimsy, rushed-looking production. Photographed by Dean Cundey in the same contrasts of heavy shadows amongst scantly lit but intricately coloured environments, a distinct series look is maintained – the problem being that was a very cheap look. It was all too easy for this film to be treated on either end by the money-men and critics as tacky grindhouse fare on the way to becoming VHS fodder, part of the great flood of cheapjack horror sequels and imitations that cluttered the early ‘80s genre landscape.
Efforts to emulate familiar cheap thrills, like the casual drill murder of a likable character, and the repeated scares of a constantly reviving cyborg in the finale, are desultory. However, in other ways, the seamy look of Season of the Witch adds to the unsettling atmosphere, promising the sort of tale in which the usual things don’t happen, and that’s quite true in a plot that threatens mass infanticide. It is however reassuring to see some of what was then the Carpenter stock company on screen, with Tom Atkins repeating hero duty from The Fog and Nancy Loomis – after she had resumed her birth name of Nancy Kyes and soon to marry director Wallace – appearing briefly as his bitter ex-wife.
Atkins is Dr Dan Challis, an ER staffer who treats a terrified old man, Grimbridge (Al Berry) who we see in the opening trying to escape the murderous attentions of some suited, well-quaffed assassins. The old man warns about a plot to “kill us all!” before one of the assassins locates him and jams his finger through his eye. The assassin then calmly immolates himself in his car, and no trace of human remains can be found amongst the remaining ashes, only synthetic materials. This leads Challis and Grimbridge’s daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin, an actress who seemed destined for heights never hit), to Santa Mira, where they try to peek behind the curtains of Cochran’s operation, but soon enough fall into his hands. O’Herlihy doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes the most of it with a terrific performance, offering a sickly sweet, caramel-smooth façade to his pet retailers before revealing his motives and beliefs with forbidding, zealous assurance: “The hills ran red with blood!” he crows with malefic delight in fantasising about the communal orgy of animal and child sacrifice that supposedly capped the Samhain festival.
In spite of the film’s slack early horror sequences, the intensity of the two scenes in which his microchip spell-conduits are employed finally generates a palpable sense of menace. The faint threat exuded by the playful Silver Shamrock ads, with its naggingly, insinuatingly catchy theme song attached to the tune of “London Bridge”, proves all too literal (the advertisements, with clunky synthesiser music and digital effects, are in themselves fascinating exemplars of cheapskate hype). The film’s last third ratchets up a surprisingly strong tension as a consequence, leading to the hoariest and usually effective stunt for a nail-biting situation: the hero tied to a chair.
The fact that Wallace was an inexperienced helmsman highlights the problem Carpenter consistently had in trying to outsource his projects: no-one available was as good a filmmaker as he was, and the thought that Joe Dante might have directed it, as originally mooted, is irresistible. Kneale’s original, apparently more comic take on the set-up might indeed have had a powerful influence on Dante’s Gremlins. Although he follows Carpenter’s example in The Fog in calmly constructing his story and sense of setting, Wallace sets up murders and fight scenes staged with little élan and there’s little dexterity to the filmmaking until Challis is finally shown Cochran’s secret laboratory, with its banks of computers and technicians working around the stolen chunk of Stonehenge, a visually striking conflation of cutting-edge and indescribably ancient paraphernalia. Unfortunately, suggestions that an Irish pagan cult might have moved in complete to Santa Mira, with a The Wicker Man-esque type of incongruity on offer, are mooted but not at all explored, which is generally true of all the film’s most intriguing elements. Sloppy details abound, like a crime scene with no police cordon and a factory without a decent security alarm. Kneale himself complained about the scenario being reduced to about six characters and a cardboard set, and there’s too much truth to that assessment.
Yet plenty of cheap and nasty films from this period are well-remembered. Perhaps the real reason for the interesting and worthwhile Halloween III: Season of the Witch being reviled was because of its undoubtedly grim premise of indiscriminate child murder, although such a storyline could all too easily have tapped into an era of urban-myth-fuelled anxiety over Halloween-night excursions. But it is true the film’s curtailed, ambiguous climax is a bit unfair to the audience, which anxiously wants (or at least I did) to see this story come out right, a touch that finally leaves a bad aftertaste. In a period in which the horror genre often went darker than ever, this was threatening dark indeed. Nonetheless, it’s still not a bad little movie.