Halloween III: Season of a Witch: The ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ of the Halloween Season
The Christmas season has always had a massive catalog of holiday-themed movies and TV specials catering to nearly every taste, from Frank Capra sentimentals and whimsical Claymation musicals to raunchy comedies and in recent years, actions films and even Christmas-themed horror. The canonical Christmas classics are so ingrained that just reading this paragraph you’ve probably conjured up one or two old stand-bys. Ask ten people what their favorite Christmas movie is, and you’ll see a lot of the same titles turn up a couple times. It’s A Wonderful Life. A Christmas Carol. A Charlie Brown Christmas. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (my dad’s favorite).
The Halloween season has always had a decidedly less than universal pantheon of movies and specials, mainly because I think when you ask somebody what they watch on Halloween they tend to tell you their favorite horror movie. People equate the season with watching horror, and there are more horror movies under the sun than there are hairs on a black cat.
When I ask this question, I impose two requirements that I find whittles down the plethora of general horror responses.
1 It has to take place during the Halloween season.
2 It should comment on the holiday or depict its traditions in some way. Even if its just pumpkin carving.
This will generally yield a more manageable set of titles in terms of trying to suss out what ought to be considered the classics of Halloween. I won’t try to list them all, but some good recurring examples include It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, A Nightmare Before Christmas, The Halloween Tree, Trick ‘R Treat, Boys In The Trees, The WNUF Halloween Special, Garfield’s Halloween Special, Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Hocus Pocus, The Midnight Hour, etc.
You’ll even find a couple of Halloween ‘bleed’ movies like Arsenic And Old Lace (Frank Capra!) this way.
Of course the Halloween franchise counts, and while I’m not a big Michael Meyers fan at all, there is one outing in the series that in my opinion counts as the quintessential movie of the Halloween season. The It’s A Wonderful Life of All Hallow’s Eve. The Miracle On 34th Street of October 31st. The Christmas Carol of Samhain.
That is, without a doubt, 1982’s Halloween III: Season of The Witch.
I’ve been singing the praises of this flick since I first saw it, and have been shouted down by Shape-heads for decades. It was notoriously panned for years as an unwelcome departure from the Laurie Strode–Michael Meyers storyline and criminally dismissed by a lot of horror fans. The premise has nothing to do with the rest of the series. It’s a one off.
Shout Factory’s description for the upcoming 4K release on Amazon says “A murder-suicide in a northern Californian hospital leads to an investigation by the on-call doctor, which reveals a plot by an insane toymaker to kill as many people as possible on October 31st through an ancient Celtic ritual and deadly Halloween masks.”
Not a masked killer in site. Instead, killer masks. The tagline, The Night NOBODY Came Home.
So, just forget Michael Meyers exists. It’s easy for me (I’m a Jason Voorhees nut). Take Halloween III out of the title. Let’s talk about a little movie from 1982 called Season Of The Witch (no, not Romero’s 1973 movie either. That’s Hungry Wives. Stop interrupting!).
The earliest memories of Halloween I cherish are of the smell of close latex and burning candles, heaps of candy rattling around in bright orange and green buckets, the scrape of a spoon in a hollowed out pumpkin and the slip of wet orange innards strung with seeds on my knuckles, leaves crackling underfoot at night, and a swirling array of half-glimpsed costumes both harrowing and gaudy, tacky and inappropriate.
Halloween. It’s chintzy, it’s spooky, it’s glorious. It’s a magical, pseudo-pagan night of anonymity, a night of festive abandon. A night of pranks and tricks and perhaps a subterranean current of unease, for some of us, in our celebrations of spirits and ghosts and goblins are flirting with the idea of oblivion and shaking ourselves wantonly under the nose of death. But Death’s a good sport about it. On this night, anyway.
And Season of The Witch encapsulates all those things for me.
Let’s start with the George Bailey of this movie, our sweaty, boozy divorcee protagonist Dr. Dan Challis, played with sleazy aplomb by Tom Atkins. Was there ever a more appropriate Halloween hero? Most of the time he acts more like a lecherous teenager in a white coat than a doctor. Challis is the bleary-eyed guy who answers the door on Halloween night with a can of beer in his hand and gives the sexy nurses and devils a little too much candy. While he gamely answers the call of adventure posed when a man murders one of his patients and self-immolates in the parking lot, leaving nothing behind but cogs and springs, like the underage drinker in the letterman’s jacket tagging along to take his best girl’s little sister out for candy, he’s really more interested in scoring Stacey Nelkin, which he invariably does, using the excuse of tracking down her missing father in a toy manufacturing factory way out in remote Santa Mira to ‘slyly’ get a one-bed room at a crummy roadside hotel and a six pack of Schlitz. He lures his companion to bed like an anxious teen who swears he can’t get the car to start. He’s a scuzz, as hilariously phony as a plastic knife in the head. But, he does uncover the terrible secret of Silver Shamrock Novelties, the makers of this year’s runaway Halloween fad, and he does do his damndest to thwart them.
And what a secret it is! If you’ve never seen this movie, here there be SPOILERS:
It’s the central ‘trick’ of Season Of The Witch that makes this movie so utterly perfect to me. Dan O’Herlihy’s puckish, ultimately sinister antagonist Conal Cochran sums it up in his villainous monologue as “a trick played on the children.” A mass sacrifice, enacted via a chip of Stonehenge embedded in a microchip in the logo of each Halloween mask, triggered by a television signal set to go off during ‘the big giveaway’ on Halloween night, during a showing of the movie Halloween.
Yes, it’s totally absurd. The death of millions of kids on Halloween night, perpetrated by a catchy jingle and the nebulous promise of a can’t-miss-it big giveaway. And not just normal old brain melting microwave beam death, but techno-science ray death by bugs and snakes popping out of your face. O’Herlihy sells the whole thing magnificently with his measured, ominous speech about the true meaning of Halloween (I don’t care that he mispronounces Samhain. Everyone does.). To this villain it’s a religious obligation, but he’s a gag-maker by trade, so it’s also a joke. You have to marry your work with your passions for a happy life.
And yet….speaking from experience as a kid in 1983, let me tell you, the plot of Halloween III would have totally got us. Or me, anyway.
The pre-eminent Saturday horror movie host of the Chicagoland area was and still is Rich Koz, The Son of Svengoolie. In the summer of 1982, Svengoolie promoted a special 3-D broadcast of Revenge Of The Creature on his show. It was the first attempt at a 3-D broadcast in Chicago. You could go to a 7-11 and get one of four limited edition cardboard 3-D glasses for 69 cents. Then, as long as you had a color TV set, could sit six feet away from the screen, and tuned in at the correct time, you’d be treated to a black and white 1955 movie in three dimensions. Yep, no big giveaway needed. I was all set to spit crickets just to watch a forty year old movie. But remember, VCR’s weren’t really widespread at that time, so if you were a fan of a movie, you scoured the TV Guide and made time for the broadcast or you missed your chance, and I was a big Creature of The Black Lagoon fan at that age – had no idea there even was a sequel. I guess the 3-D actually didn’t end up working correctly. I somehow missed the broadcast, even though I remember being really stoked for it. I probably fell asleep.
Another thing Season Of The Witch gets right about 80’s kids was our ravenous susceptibility to fads. Even before we induced our parents to duke it out in the aisles of Toys ‘R Us over Cabbage Patch Kids, in October 1980 there was another fad eerily akin to the Don Post masks of this movie that arrested the kids of Saint Andrew The Apostle in Calumet City, Illinois; Kooky Spooks.
Kooky Spooks came and went and a lot of people don’t remember them, but I was crazy to get in on it that Halloween. It was basically a bagged costume consisting of a plastic poncho, some reflective tape and makeup, and an inflatable character that sat on top of your head. There were nine variations. Wunkin Pumpkin, Wobblin Goblin, Scaredy Cat, Howly Owl, Spacey Casey, Wonder Witch, and Bone Head. The commercials were as ubiquitous as the Silver Shamrock jingle and they made me desperate to plunk down my parents’ money.
I was a Scaredy Cat. I was five or so, so I don’t know if I’m misremembering this entire thing and I was actually the laughingstock of my friends and not the envy. I have this one photo of my great grandmother disapproving of my get-up (including blackface), and my ma remembers it as being hysterical. I think the headpiece deflated and drooped over my face halfway through Halloween night.
Anyway the point is, I totally would have begged for one of those pumpkin masks (and I eventually did get one as an adult – Buddy Kupfer Jr. is my go-to Halloween costume when I take the kids out).
It could be all these elements of my own childhood Halloween experiences combined to prime me perfectly to enjoy Season Of The Witch, but a glance at blogs and lists around the internet tells me that I’m not as alone as I once was.
Season Of The Witch, for me, is the Halloween movie that perfectly encompasses everything I enjoy about Halloween and I closeout the holiday every year with a late night watch after we’ve brought the kids home from trick ‘r treating.
Don’t forget to watch the big giveaway….and wear your mask.
Edward M. Erdelac is the author of thirteen novels including the acclaimed Judeocentric/Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider, Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against The Lovecraftian Mythos, Conquer, Monstrumfuhrer from Comet Press, Terovolas from JournalStone Publishing, and Andersonville from Random House/Hydra.
Born in Indiana, educated in Chicago, he lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife and a bona fide slew of kids and cats.
In 1976 Harlem, JOHN CONQUER, P.I. is the cat you call when your hair stands up…the supernatural brother like no other. From the pages of Occult Detective Quarterly, he’s calm, he’s cool, and now he’s collected in CONQUER.
From Hoodoo doctors and Voodoo Queens,
The cat they call Conquer’s down on the scene!
With a dime on his shin and a pocket of tricks,
A gun in his coat and an eye for the chicks.
Uptown and Downton, Harlem to Brooklyn,
Wherever the brothers find trouble is brewin,’
If you’re swept with a broom, or your tracks have been crossed,
If your mojo is failin’ and all hope is lost,
Call the dude on St. Marks with the shelf fulla books,
‘Cause ain’t no haint or spirit, or evil-eye looks,
Conjured by devils, JAMF’s, or The Man,
Can stop the black magic Big John’s got on hand!
Collects Conquer Comes Calling, Conquer Gets Crowned, Conquer Comes Correct and four previously unpublished stories – Keep Cool, Conquer, Conquer Cracks His Whip, Conquer And The Queen of Crown Heights, and Who The Hell Is John Conquer?
Rainbringer: Zora Neale Hurston Against the Lovecraftian Mythos —
“The oaths of secrecy she [Zora Neale Hurston] swore, and the terrifying physical and emotional ordeals she endured…left their mark on her, and there were certain parts of her material which she never dared to reveal, even in scientific publications.” – Alan Lomax
ZORA! She traveled the 1930’s south alone with a loaded forty four and an unmatched desire to see and to know. She was at home in the supper clubs of New York City, back road juke joints, under ropes of Spanish moss, and dancing around the Vodoun peristyle. Her experiences brought us Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules And Men, Tell My Horse, and Jonah’s Gourd Vine. But between the lines she wrote lie the words unwritten, truths too fantastic to divulge….until now.
LEAVES FLOATING IN A DREAM’S WAKE, BEYOND THE BLACK ARCADE. EKWENSU’S LULLABY. KING YELLER. GODS OF THE GRIM NATION. THE SHADOW IN THE CHAPEL OF EASE. BLACK WOMAN, WHITE CITY. THE DEATHLESS SNAKE. Eight weird and fantastic stories spanning the breadth of her amazing life. Eight times when she faced the nameless alien denizens of the outer darkness and didn’t blink.
ZORA! Celebrated writer, groundbreaking anthropologist, Hoodoo initiate, footloose queen of the Harlem Renaissance, Mythos detective.