Sometimes I have a terrible suspicion that my favorite Halloween movie is actually Halloween III: Season of the Witch. For a long time, after being forced to downsize my movie collection in a move, Halloween III was the only film in the series I bothered to repurchase. Before that, I’d kept a copy recorded during AMC FearFest on my DVR for a year, or maybe it was two? It’s the one I actually spend the most time with, frequently queuing it up when I just want to have something playing in the background. Its moody, ghoulish synthesizer score makes me happy. It’s also the one I wonder about. It intrigues me in a way the beloved Myers saga does not, with its fantastical tale of Druids and killer robots and ritual sacrifices: folk horror and suburban dystopia, two great tastes that taste great together. Not to take anything away from the Michael Myers Halloweens. I love them. Halloween (1978) is one of the greatest horror films of all time by any measure, and I’ve memorized its sequels – OK, except maybe Resurrection — and even Rob Zombie’s remakes. But it’s a little like one of those romantic comedies where the hero/ine looks around and realizes the best friend they’ve been neglecting all movie long is the one. That’s me and Halloween III. And this, I guess, is me hoisting a boombox over my head and playing that inescapable jingle from the film: Eight more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween/Eight more days to Halloween/Silver Shamrock.
Halloween III is, of course, primarily known as the only film in the series not centered around masked killer Michael Myers, but Halloween creators John Carpenter and Debra Hill never intended for the Halloween series to be all about Michael. They envisioned an anthology series after the wild success of the first film, and they meant to finish Michael and final girl Laurie Strode’s story, more or less, where they actually ended up in Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. (At least, until Carpenter’s new direct sequel to 1978’s Halloween next year, the idea of which, honestly, just makes me tired.) Instead, it picks up later that night, with wild-eyed Dr. Loomis tracking Michael and Michael tracking Laurie through the least-staffed hospital in these United States. Part II is also where mythology gets introduced that changes the story pretty significantly. No longer is Michael wordlessly stalking a bookish babysitter and her friends on Halloween night just because; Laurie is revealed to be Michael’s little sister, adopted after their parents’ died, transforming Michael from an inscrutable boogieman into a creature with a definite purpose, purpose tied to his own bloodline. The first film didn’t need anything more than the idea that Michael was an unstoppable killing machine with a predilection for stabbing promiscuous young ladies on Halloween night, but it makes sense they would want to expand the story in the second movie to keep it from simply being more of the same. Unfortunately, it’s still more of the same, and it will always be more of the same, as Michael proves you can’t go home again and again and again and again, more Groundhog Day than Halloween. As much as I love those movies, that love is at least three-quarters nostalgia, and their existence retroactively weakens the first Halloween. If you watch it innocent of all the mythology that comes after, it’s a much stronger, credible horror film.
Speaking of stronger, credible horror films, Halloween III. Carpenter’s handpicked director, Tommy Lee Wallace, came up with the subtitle as a nod to the planned anthology format for this and future films, like seasons of American Horror Story. It will surprise no one familiar with his work that Halloween III began with a script by Nigel Kneale, whose work Sci-Fi editor Keith has discussed before, including, as it happens, his influence on Halloween III and the extent to which it fits in with British sci-fi folk horror. Kneale’s draft, however, was not sufficiently bloody for Dino De Laurentiis, and Wallace was tasked with making it so. Whatever changes Wallace supplied – probably at least one death by drill and a crushed head, I’m guessing — the spirit of Kneale’s work survived, and it’s still not even all that gory – especially if you don’t consider the honey-mustard stuff inside robots “gore.”
The remaining story of Halloween III ends up roughly equal parts British sci-fi-infused folk horror, like Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) or The Legend of Hell House (1973), and American creeping conspiracy sci-fi horror, like The Stepford Wives (1972) or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978). It follows Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins, being everybody’s dad’s alcoholic golf buddy as hero in superb form) as he helps a bereaved young woman, Ellie Grimbridge, track the mystery of her father’s murder from the hospital where Dr. Challis works to a Californian town centered around a Halloween mask-making factory. (The town itself is an homage, named Santa Mira after the town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) Challis and Ellie eventually discover what her father presumably did, that the Silver Shamrock company’s popular Halloween masks are part of an elaborate plot to sacrifice children on Halloween. Each of the masks is embedded with an electronic chip that contains a tiny fragment of a Stonehenge cromlech; when activated by the signal during their “Big Giveaway” on TV Halloween night, the children really will ruin their eyes by sitting too close to the TV set, along with the rest of their noggins as they magically-scientifically collapse into nests of snakes and vermin. The conspiracy is masterminded by Conal Cochran, played with twinkling villainy by Dan O’Herlihy, who warmly chides Challis, “You don’t really know much about Halloween,” noting forgotten, harsh realities underlying far-removed habits of the civilized world, like Halloween and trick-or-treating. Cochran built his toymaking business over decades, staffing the town with robots and keeping relentless surveillance for the sake of a grand sacrifice on a truly astronomical scale: “We don’t decide these things, you know,” Cochran says. “The planets do.” I don’t know if the planets knew about timezones in the continental U.S., but still. In the days before widespread cable TV, he would probably get a pretty hefty sacrifice before Pacific Time tuned in anyway.
It is worth noting that Cochran’s killer robots are all individual and yet-still-indistinguishable white dudes in suits. They’re actually not terribly unlike Michael Myers in methodology or blank malice — one of them was actually played by a former Michael Myers — but just the optics invokes a critique of Halloween III as presaging American Psycho, merging the soullessness of Wall Street with serial killers. It’s also interesting that insofar as Cochran represents a coven of witches, witches being stereotypically female, there is no feminine face for this evil, unless you count that one knitting robot. Given that the nature of the conspiracy reaches into people’s homes with subtlety, kills through indirect action (activating the masks when they tune in and put them on versus, say, stabbing people to death) and endangers children specifically, it’s the more notable that the cult isn’t feminine at all. These are very womanly, witchy characteristics, in witchcraft persecution depositions and fiction both. That, with the complaint by one local drunk that Cochran hollowed out the town and brought in his alien workforce to the detriment of the locals, lends itself to seeing the whole thing as a big metaphor for capitalism, mechanization, immigration, globalization – big scary economic forces that were then still generally understood as a man’s world. There are probably many forms the Big Bad in Halloween III could have taken, but its ultimate form was a smiling white businessman selling you something deadly.
And that returns me to what Halloween III does have in common with the original Halloween, more than any of its direct sequels, this sense of the hidden untrustworthiness of American dream. Expanding Halloween into Myers Family Matters sacrificed that.* Michael could have been any boy in any family on any street in any town, his implacable Evil, in Dr. Loomis’ parlance, spontaneous and unpredictable as cancer cells. Once Michael has a reason and that reason is something easily located away from the audience, no longer are the lingering tracking shots of pleasant suburban streets in autumn quite so dreadful. The series forfeits that forever, except in Halloween III, where the idyllic once again masks the insidious. It’s more elaborate in Halloween III, of course, where Santa Mira conceals an outright Druid conspiracy, than in Halloween’s Haddonfield, but I imagine that to Dr. Challis, discovering none of the phones in Santa Mira reach the outside world, and to Laurie, screaming and pounding fruitlessly on the neighbors’ doors as she flees Michael, the effect is pretty much the same. Everything looks safe, but nothing will save you. It’s also notable that both end with bleak cliffhangers. They’re two very different horror stories, but they’re unified by an attack on the banal assurances of modern society by ancient, unknowable evils. There are a handful of nods to Halloween throughout Halloween III, from clips of the film itself to shared actors, but this nihilistic vision of a world where a consumer fad kills a generation of kids has something more in common with the 1978 original than just a name. It’s the reason for the season.
*Further elaboration of Michael’s backstory in later sequels opened up veins that told he had been tortured as a child and his drive to murder his relatives was also part of an ancient Druidic cult’s sacrificial rituals, returning a sense of true crime sordidness behind middle-class facades, but his story also stalls out with these revelations, triggering the reboots and reimaginings.
This Halloween, Angela plans to sacrifice a whole bag of fun-size Snickers to her tummy.
When this came out my aunt saw it and the idea scared her to the point where she was openly checking our masks for “wires”. I got wind of this and was unable to handle wearing a Halloween mask again until I was an adult because in the back of my mind I remembered an authority figured worried they could kill us.