GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: Lisa Morton

Halloween III: Season of the Witch
By: Lisa Morton

Let’s get one big thing out of the way first: Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is possibly the worst sequel ever made. I don’t mean that in the sense that this is the worst movie ever made that followed another movie, but rather that this is not even remotely a sequel to Halloween (1978) or Halloween II (1981). This movie has no slasher in a William Shatner mask (except for a couple of scenes of the first movie glimpsed on televisions), no courageous Laurie Strode frantically repurposing a wire coat hanger into a weapon. Making this movie part of the Halloween franchise is about like making a Mad Max movie set in a scenic utopia where everyone walks.

Aside from that, there’s really a lot to love about Halloween III: Season of the Witch, especially if you’re one of those who (like me) start cruising stores in July for Halloween stuff. Unlike the other films in John Carpenter’s Michael Myers series, this one is not merely set around and finally on Halloween, but explores the deeper meaning of the holiday itself.

In case you’ve either skipped seeing Halloween III because of the bad press or haven’t seen it since its original release in 1982, here’s what it’s all about: a small-town doctor, Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), is working the late-shift at the hospital eight days before Halloween when he finds that one of his patients has had his face pulled apart. When the dead guy’s comely daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) shows up and decides to investigate Dad’s murder, the good doctor accompanies her to the small Northern California town of Santa Mira, where Dad had been dealing with the Silver Shamrock Company, producers of Halloween masks. Silver Shamrock’s owner Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) is a mysterious Irish toymaker who is more than he seems. Before long, Dan and Ellie are surrounded by a number of bizarre deaths, all somehow related to a five-ton piece of Stonehenge kept in Silver Shamrock’s basement, surrounded by scientists and high-tech (for 1982) equipment. It’s finally up to Dan to escape Cochran and tell the world that the immensely popular Silver Shamrock masks will unleash more than just a lot of candy.

So, where’s the title witch? Okay, yeah… Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a double-fail as a title because there’s no Michael Myers AND there’s no witch. What there is instead is Conal Cochran, who is known as the ultimate practical joker and who tells Dan that he was around when Halloween was still called Samhain and “the hills ran red.” The first screenwriter on Halloween III was mad genius Nigel Kneale, the British writer who not only wrote the terrifying Quatermass and the Pit (known in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth), but even invented a now-accepted paranormal investigation theory in his 1972 television movie The Stone Tape (“stone tape theory” speculates that some objects or structures can record traumatic events and replay them). Producer Debra Hill asked for a story that combined ancient witchcraft and modern technology, and Kneale was brought in to write the first draft but he ended up being unhappy with the gore added later and had his name removed from the credits. Kneale’s influence is plainly still there… but, sadly, watered down. In his draft Cochran was an ancient demon; in the final film, his nature is so ambiguous – is he a trickster spirit? A sorcerer? A Druid? Just a creepy old dude? – that it deprives his character of a shot at real iconic horror stardom.

Halloween III certainly has other problems. It was Tommy Lee Wallace’s first directing gig (he would go on to make the It television miniseries with Tim Curry as Pennywise), and he has a bad habit throughout the film of holding on his actors so long that you can see them actually wondering what they should be doing. Tom Atkins is always a reliable and likeable actor, but his character here is a doctor who drinks and smokes too much, slaps his nurse on the ass, and asks Ellie how old she is after they have sex (hey, at least he’s not a typical hero). The editing is lazy, and the story takes too long to get going.

But here’s what’s great about Halloween III: it’s Weird with a capital W. Weird as in, full-on go-for-broke crazy. Name another movie that incorporates 18th-century clockwork automata, Jerusalem crickets, loving shots of latex masks being produced, a fake living room set in a lead-lined laboratory, a heroine whose last name is Grimbridge, a reference to Samhain, a woman whose face is (very artistically) fried by an energy beam… well, you get the idea. Buried beneath all this wackiness is some interesting commentary about consumer culture, especially about how it has created a middle class that is happy to plant its children in front of a television while the parents are otherwise engaged. The Silver Shamrock commercial jingle, heard throughout the film, limns an American society obsessed with advertising, even at the expense of protecting its own children. Halloween III is one of those few films that doesn’t just threaten children but shows one being graphically killed, while the parents attempt not to save the child but to flee.

It’s probably no coincidence that Halloween III, which John Carpenter co-produced and also co-wrote, is intensely cynical and ultimately nihilistic, because it was released in 1982, the same year Carpenter directed The Thing. Although in some respects it’s closer to Carpenter’s 1980 gem The Fog – they share the same small Northern California coastal town setting – it absolutely reflects the “we’re all doomed” aesthetic of The Thing.

It also happily wallows in Halloween-ness. First are the three Silver Shamrock masks – a jack-o’-lantern, a skull, and a witch – which we get to see in the factory, in stores stocked full of Halloween goods, and on kids parading about the streets in costume, engaged in trick or treat. The plot’s meticulous build toward the 31st – giving us a seasonal countdown – raises the holiday to an appropriate level of importance. And even Cochran’s undefined nature could arguably be a comment on the deeper mysteries surrounding the history of Halloween.

If you’ve never seen Halloween III: Season of the Witch, consider giving it a spin this October. Go in knowing it’s neither a perfect film nor a classic slasher and you might find other, stranger pleasures here to enjoy instead. Just don’t blame me if that Silver Shamrock jingle gets stuck in your head for weeks after.

Boo-graphy: Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, Bram Stoker Award-winning prose writer, and Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.”  She has published four novels, 150 short stories, and three books on the history of Halloween. Her recent releases include Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction from Groundbreaking Female Writers 1852-1923 (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances; her latest short stories appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2020, Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles, and In League with Sherlock Holmes. Her most recent book is the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales. Lisa lives in Los Angeles and online.

From Halloween expert Morton, a level-headed and entertaining history of our desire and attempts to hold conversations with the dead.
 
Calling the Spirits investigates the eerie history of our conversations with the dead, from necromancy in Homer’s Odyssey to the emergence of Spiritualism—when Victorians were entranced by mediums and the seance was born. Among our cast are the Fox sisters, teenagers surrounded by “spirit rappings”; Daniel Dunglas Home, the “greatest medium of all time”; Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose unlikely friendship was forged, then riven, by the afterlife; and Helen Duncan, the medium whose trial in 1944 for witchcraft proved more popular to the public than news about the war. The book also considers Ouija boards, modern psychics, and paranormal investigations, and is illustrated with engravings, fine art (from beyond), and photographs. Hugely entertaining, it begs the question: is anybody there . . . ?

An abused child finds comfort in the friendship of Frankenstein’s monster…a near-future Halloween party becomes an act of global terrorism…one of the world’s wealthiest men goes in search of his fate as he rots from within…Hans Holbein’s famed “Dance of Death” engravings are revealed to be an instruction manual…a man trapped on an isolated road confronts both a terrifying creature and the legacy of his tough-as-nails grandfather…

Night Terrors and Other Tales is the first major collection to gather together twenty of Lisa Morton’s finest short stories (chosen by the author herself). During a career that has spanned more than three decades, she has produced work that has been hailed as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening” (the American Library Association’s Readers Advisory Guide to Horror).

If you’ve never encountered Lisa Morton’s work before, you’ll find out why Famous Monsters called her “one of the best writers in dark fiction today.” If you’re already a fan, this collection will offer up a chance to revisit these acclaimed and award-winning stories. You’ll also find a new story here, written just for this collection: “Night Terrors” reveals ordinary people trying to cope with extraordinary and terrifying dreams that have spread like a plague.

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