Halloween Review: Halloween III — Season of the Witch

Review by Rob Vaux
Starring: Tom Atkins, Dan  O’Herlihy, Stacey Nelkin, Michael Currie, Ralph Strait and Jadeen Barbor
Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace
Running time: 98 Minutes
Year of release: 1982
(Note: This review originally appeared on Mania.com. With the demise of that site, I’m reposting it here for general edification and amusement. Incidentally, the film opened 33 years ago this very day.)

I’m not sure we’d be talking about Halloween III: Season of the Witch without that misleading Number 3 in the title. This is not a Halloween movie, just a Halloween movie. There’s no Michael Myers, no Dr. Loomis and no Laurie Strode. The producers slid a completely different film into the franchise to boost its profile, turning an otherwise unremarkable effort into a unique cinematic curiosity. In and of itself, it’s kind of a disaster. Throw it in with one of slasher-dom’s signature franchises, however, and the Funky Factor makes it worth some attention.

It certainly features a clever hook, though it doesn’t exploit it the way a truly great horror movie might. A crazed Irish businessman – and really, is there any other kind? – hits upon the prank to end all pranks, courtesy of some old-school witchcraft and a series of bestselling monster masks produced in his coastal California factory. An alcoholic doctor (Tom Atkins) catches brief wind of the plot after treating a patient clutching one of the masks in his hands. Why doesn’t he go to the police? No reason, except that they might have more luck than he does, and what fun would that be?

The cheerfully ridiculous story includes robot duplicates, suicide killers, a smuggled chunk of Stonehenge and the most annoyingly catchy fake commercial ever conceived. As high camp, it works brilliantly. As a legitimate horror film – certainly one connected however tangentially to the immortal John Carpenter original – it continually trips over its own shoelaces. The storyline makes no rational sense, and director Tommy Lee Wallace coats it in that uniquely 80s low-budget sheen that betrays the film’s grindhouse roots. A few money shots score, notably the first big reveal of the masks in action, but most of it hinges on Atkins’ willingness to take it all seriously rather than snicker up his sleeve with the rest of us.

At the same time, its silliness can be a great deal of fun with the right mindset. I stand in awe both of the bizarre ideas it clings to with a fanatic death grip, and the gaping logic holes it miraculously ignores in the process. Nigel Kneale – creator of The Quatermass Experiment – conceived of the screenplay on what I can only assume was a lethal combination of bennies, lighter fluid and Guinness Extra Stout.  It’s really more science fiction than horror, with shades of The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers jockeying for attention with all the black magic. The futuristic trappings coexist queasily with the Olde Tyme witchcraft. It’s like seeing Gandalf the Grey in an astronaut’s helmet: you can’t ever be comfortable with it, but watching the movie try to make it work constitutes a perverse fascination.

Hard-core horror fans will find more to enjoy here than laymen. It’s great watching Atkins – a veteran character actor normally relegated to supporting roles – play the hero for a change, while Dan O’Herilhy goes gleefully over the top as the devilish industrialist behind it all. A few clever nods to the original Halloween show up as well (such as Jamie Lee Curtis voicing a telephone operator and a fantastic score from Carpenter himself and Alan Howarth), and Wallace maintains the feeling of dark desires beneath it all: some black and forbidden trick that part of us really wants to see played out. Halloween III also adds a very 80s anti-business critique that never really catches hold, but further enhances its strange concoction of ideas.

To top it all off, it sits in the middle of a franchise utterly unconnected to it in any way except the title. Carpenter and his late partner Debra Hill served as producers on the film, and envisioned it as a leap-frog away from the Michael Myers saga. They wanted the Halloween films to become a kind of anthology, with an entirely new Halloween-themed story told with each new movie. It didn’t turn out that way, and more’s the pity: the concept sounds far more interesting than the endless, wretched regurgitation of Michael Myers slasher crap we ultimately received. 1982 produced a lot of horror classics, and fair number of shitty sequels to boot. This one lies somewhere in between: not good by any stretch of the imagination, but weird, unique and even kind of fun in the right mindset.  And where do those qualities feel so much at home, if not on that wonderfully subversive holiday in the title?

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