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.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Jonathan Janz

Meghan: Hey, Jonathan. I don’t know if you realize this, but you have been a part of our annual Halloween Extravaganza long before it was named a Halloween Extravaganza. In fact, you have been part of every Halloween celebration since I started blogging, back in 2014, on The Gal in the Blue Mask. So thank you so much for all the support. And for once again taking part. Let’s begin: What is your favorite part of Halloween?

Jonathan: I think the general mood. I love the aura, the spooky, cozy, gloomy vibe of late-October/early-November. There’s something uniquely mysterious in the air, the feeling that anything could happen, will happen. Wet-black tree trunks and rain-shiny streets. Drooping leaves and shadows. No time can transport me back to elementary school like this time of year. Nothing can reproduce that shivery feeling quite like Halloween time.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween tradition?

Jonathan: Hmm… For me, the music plays a big role. The Halloween score is a central, seminal work there. I think not only of Carpenter’s incredible main theme, but of the other tracks, specifically the one we hear when Jamie Lee Curtis walks through the neighborhood when we first meet her. I hear the same music when I walk through my own neighborhood, which is like hers with more hills. I also love “This Is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I sing that one with my youngest daughter Peach.

So listening to the music is a big part of the celebration for me.

Meghan: If Halloween is your favorite holiday (or even second favorite holiday), why?

Jonathan: It’s my favorite non-religious holiday, I’ll say that. It’s just such a marvelous celebration of all the things I love about horror. It’s being joyful in the terror, it’s reveling in the macabre. It really is a time where what we love all year is normalized and appreciated by all, including the hobbyists. For a short time they can see through our eyes and understand the dark beauty we see all year. So there’s a sense of community with the full-timers and a moment of communion with the part-timers.

Meghan: What are you superstitious about?

Jonathan: I’m really not superstitious anymore, but I used to be. Like catastrophically so. I was afraid to leave a room without first smiling into a mirror because I was sure the last expression I made in that mirror would determine the tenor of the day or evening. I had an intricate series of rituals I had to complete (everything in threes, everything pointing in a specific direction) that held a mystical power over me. Essentially, I was raddled with these superstitions, and they profoundly affected me in many negative ways. I eventually overcame them, but it took time.

Meghan: What/who is your favorite horror monster or villain?

Jonathan: Michael Myers still scares the daylights out of me. So does Jerry Dandridge from the original Fright Night. I love werewolves in general, so the one in Silver Bullet, for instance used to really give me the willies. Oh, and The Thing was awesome because it’s this hostile intelligence and always changing.

Meghan: Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?

Jonathan: Wow. Tough one. There were a pair of murders in my hometown of Delphi, Indiana (which is known as Shadeland in Children of the Dark) that remain unsolved, so for several reasons I want that killer to be caught. Two adolescent girls lost their lives, so it’s an unspeakable tragedy.

Meghan: Which urban legend scares you the most?

Jonathan: I don’t know if this qualifies, but Spring-Heeled Jack has always fascinated me. I love the uniqueness of his powers and the mysterious, fantastical nature of his abilities. I’d like to write a novel about it someday.

Meghan: Who is your favorite serial killer and why?

Jonathan: Well, I probably wouldn’t say that any would be my favorite, but the most fascinating has to be Jack the Ripper. So much of that has to do with the surreptitious nature of the crimes, the Whitechapel setting, the myriad theories about the killer’s identity, and the fact that it remains unsolved. I also think the clothing of the time and the fog add to the mystique.

Meghan: How old were you when you saw your first horror movie? How old were you when you read your first horror book?

Jonathan: Probably something like The Omen, which scared the crap out of me. I vividly remember watching The Twilight Zone when I was little, especially Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Also the one where there’s an alien in the café and the one where the woman is going to have plastic surgery because (supposedly) she’s so hideous. Those shows truly impacted me. They scared me to death but they absolutely absorbed me and compelled me to keep watching despite my terror.

As far as the first horror book, that one’s easy: Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. That book changed everything for me. Not long after that, I read ‘Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Night Shift, Carrie, The Gunslinger, Skeleton Crew, Pet Sematary, and It. Essentially, the first twenty books I read were all by Stephen King, so he’s the reason I’m where I am today. He made me a reader, a writer, and an English teacher. Regarding the way those stories made me feel…for the first time, I felt smart when I was reading those books. Obviously, I was entertained too. And mesmerized and unsettled and transfixed. Those books were revelations to me.

Meghan: Which horror novel unsettled you the most?

Jonathan: Ah, nice question! Let’s see…I’m going to say The Girl Next Door. Jack Ketchum/Dallas Mayr had a way of going to the core of an issue and showing us what he found there, without flinching. That book made me cringe, put it down, return to it reluctantly, despair for humankind, and weep for what happened to that poor young woman.

Meghan: Which horror movie scarred you for life?

Jonathan: This one is easy, though it’s surprisingly recent. It’s called Lake Mungo, and it’s a slow-burn faux-documentary that’s at turns depressing, unnerving, and flat-out terrifying. There’s a moment in the film I keep replaying in my head to an unhealthy, obsessive degree. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I’m afraid to see this face coming out of the dark. So even though I’m an adult…I might just be permanently scarred by Lake Mungo.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween costume?

Jonathan: I had a chintzy Godzilla costume when I was really little. Cheap as hell, the sharp plastic mask with the string. But I loved it, felt like I was a fire-breathing monster when I wore it. I loved that costume and love it still.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween-themed song?

Jonathan: Got to be “This Is Halloween,” though some of the tracks from Halloween are in the running. The song I referred to earlier I think is called “Laurie’s Theme,” though I could be wrong about that.

Meghan: What is your favorite Halloween candy or treat? What is your most disappointing?

Jonathan: My favorite candy altogether is Dots, so because I sometimes get to eat those on Halloween, I’ll go with Dots. Other favorites include Snickers, Twizzlers, Reese’s Cups, and Kit Kats. Disappointing candy? I can’t think of any.

Meghan: Thanks again for stopping by today. As always, it was an absolute pleasure having you here. Before you go, what is your go-to Halloween movie and book?

Jonathan:
Top Halloween Movie: Halloween (1978): I know this is an uncreative answer, but Carpenter’s original film is just perfect. What I appreciate is how Carpenter treats the quieter moments, not just the kills. That film just drips atmosphere.

Top Halloween Book: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Look, there are many great Halloween stories, but this one feels perfect for Halloween. I love the evocation of the small town, the friendship, the father-son relationship, those cusp-of-adulthood themes, and of course the sinister elements in the book. Basically, it’s perfect. I taught it for a few years to freshmen, and they ate it up. It’s a timeless novel.


Boo-graphy:
Jonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories. His work has been championed by authors like Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ketchum, and Brian Keene; he has also been lauded by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. His ghost story The Siren and the Specter was selected as a Goodreads Choice nominee for Best Horror. Additionally, his novel Children of the Dark was chosen by Booklist as a Top Ten Horror Book of the Year. Jonathan’s main interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children.

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