They’re fun. They’re frightening. And they glow in the dark.
After the insane success of John Carpenter‘s Halloween and the modest follow-through of its sequel Halloween II ($70 million on a $300,000 budget and $25.5 million on a $2.5 million budget respectively), the director readied to leave Haddonfield, Laurie Strode, and their malevolent predator behind. How many times can you bring the same supernatural monster back to life anyway? (Wink, wink.) His idea was to therefore pivot the franchise into an anthology series wherein the generic title/holiday would constitute the sole connective tissue between everything that would follow. So he went outside the box hiring sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale before Tommy Lee Wallace ultimately joined to punch up the violence and make Halloween III: Season of the Witch his directorial debut. Let’s just say this ambitious rebrand backfired.
Audiences felt duped Michael Myers wasn’t involved—although we do see clips of the original film on TV screens as though Wallace’s world was our own. Kneale disavowed the script after seeing the changes, removing his name from the credits. And just six years later the experiment would officially be rendered dead (if the box office failure of this first and only attempt didn’t already prove it) in favor of the aptly titled Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. But there’s more to Halloween III‘s poor reception than unfulfilled expectations on the part of the filmmakers and viewers alike. Strip its title’s familiarity away and you’re still left with an overlong “Twilight Zone” episode wherein any effective suspense that may have existed is erased for out-of-place gore.
It doesn’t help that our protagonists are completely unfit for the roles of amateur sleuths as written. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is a doctor, not a detective. He has no real explicit connection to what’s happening except for the fact that he was on duty when the crazed Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) enters the hospital with ominous words of warning. When this patient dies at the hands of a businessman portraying the act of murder as rote before killing himself in the aftermath, Daniel becomes so intrigued in the why of it all that he takes a week off from work and lies to his ex-wife (Nancy Kyes in another Halloween connection considering she played Annie in that installment) and kids about where he’s going. Fate or convenience?
His partner in getting way over their heads is Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), daughter of the deceased. She will not go back to Atlanta until discovering why someone would kill her father so she joins Challis on a road trip to the creepy Celtic ghost town of Santa Mira, CA (the homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers is overtly intentional). This is where Silver Shamrock Novelties resides, the factory that makes the country’s best-selling silicon masks—the very same kind Ellie’s Dad bought a day before his death. Challis and Grimbridge pretend to be married (an actual romantic connection forming out of nowhere despite their twenty-five year age difference) in order to sneak onto the premises as prospective buyers. Eventually things that actually matter do start happening.
It unfortunately takes far too long, though. My interest was already at zero. Spending ten minutes following Harry Grimbridge at the start only to shift focus onto Challis’ family and then yet again on Ellie’s arrival exacerbates this problem because we’re never given time to care about any of them despite so much time being spent. Wallace seems to think waiting equals suspense because that’s all we get for the first half of the film. We wait to hear back from Challis’ coroner friend about Harry’s assailant’s ashes. We wait to meet the insidiously posh Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy): Santa Mira’s savior, Shamrock proprietor, and renowned “gag” artist. We wait for everything but Daniel and Ellie’s sex scene because forced chemistry is apparently more important than contextual plot.
That’s not entirely true. I do think plot was important. But at some point it was chopped into pieces so graphic murders could be sprinkled in. And by graphic I mean a man barely being squeezed between two cars before stiffly falling to the ground and another victim having his skull ever so slightly compressed by two fingers, one in each eyehole. At least the first Santa Mira casualty delivers some memorable prosthetics thanks to getting a laser to the face, but that demise ends up feeling louder than it should. Witchcraft and horror eventually come into play, but they’re not the mystery’s main propulsion. Its science fiction is. Cochran’s weirdly automaton bodyguards and the constant repetition of Shamrock’s extremely annoying commercials on both TV and radio are.
And they deserve a lighter touch. They deserve protagonists who aren’t all hormones and self-interest simply because they’re in a horror film. We should be trying to figure out what Cochran is after, not whether Challis and Ellie will stop him. There’s too much focus on the inconsequential when the meat is legitimately captivating. This is why the final thirty minutes are by far Halloween III‘s best. They’re when the horror pretenses are shed for revelations and pure emotion. There are some inspiring choices whether evil targeting innocent children or a believable if implausible reason for goons to not stay dead. Add an ambiguous ending where triumph proves only half the battle and you wonder if it all could have been great as a forty minute short.
There’s no mistaking Carpenter and producing partner Debra Hill‘s inspirations of “Night Gallery” and “The Twilight Zone”. But there’s also a reason those work in their short format. A movie needs more than a good concept—especially when it’s one as familiar as Cochran’s eventually proves—to succeed. It needs more than filler by way of uninteresting characters following a set process of directives to move forward without adding anything. We need the desperation Atkins shows at the conclusion to take over his actions much earlier. We need Nelkin to be more than eye candy that distracts us from the fact she could be removed entirely without losing anything but the sex scene. With so much bloat, Cochran’s master plan can’t prevent itself from feeling like an afterthought.
Watched in conjunction with Season Three of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.