In theory, Halloween III: Season of the Witch should be the most interesting of the franchise; an attempt to anthologise the series and move it away from its slasher roots, a focus on the pagan origins of the holiday itself and a not entirely unambitious ending. In an era where your Freddys and Jasons were still only in their larval phases and hadn’t yet worn out the slasher structure by fighting each other in space or whatever, John Carpenter made the brave move to leave Michael Myers dead and move on to stories new. Alas this film, and the universal derision it received, would mark the final meaningful involvement of John Carpenter in his own franchise (well, until now) but far from the end of Halloween itself.
This nominally third film in the series concerns the shlubby, porno-moustached Dr Dan; your typical hard drinking, hard sexing deadbeat dad that populated every 80s film. After a series of murders at his hospital by someone inhumanly strong who eventually burns to death – you’d be right to be suspicious of how similar this all sounds to Halloween 2 – he ends up investigating a mask manufacturer. Silver Shamrock, responsible for unleashing the true evil of the film in the form of their jingle, is the Apple of Halloween masks (this is a dumb film) to the point that even children know their name and will run in from playing outside to watch their commercials thanks to a competition. (Yes, commercials for masks, it’s a very dumb film.) Dan and the attractive lady protagonist head to the town Shamrock operates its factory out of, a town it seemingly owns and employees all the residents of. They sneak into the mask factory as part of a very Willy Wonka style tour that the reclusive head of the company is giving in the lead up to Halloween. Once again, just to reiterate; exceedingly dumb. And this is where things get weird…er. And dumber, obviously.
Turns out, said reclusive capitalist (played by the wonderful Dan O’Herlihy) is very Irish – in case the lyrical Hollywood accent and shamrock branding didn’t give it away – and wants to honour the pagan sacrifice element of the holiday that we’ve lost in our awful modern times. Kids these days, too busy with their living to be willingly sacrificed. To wit; he’s stolen one of the pillars of Stonehenge and is chipping it down and inserting a little piece of it into all his masks. This will be activated on Halloween night when they broadcast the “detonator” via their commercials and thus set off the magic of Stonehenge; in this case the mask fills with snakes and every child wearing a mask gets eaten by magic, pagan rock snakes. St Patrick would be disgusted. Oh, and robots. Most of Conal Cochran’s (he’s Irish, you guys) staff and indeed the town residents are all Westworld style robots. So Dan destroys everything as best he can, fights off the robots and flees the town to try and get the broadcasters not to run the commercial and we’re left with the cliff-hanger of one of the stations potentially causing mass child death via Stonehenge snake magic.
Bewilderingly idiotic as that all sounds, on paper this had heaps of potential. The idea of resurrecting a sacrificial element of Halloween is an interesting one, especially since there’s no ancient evil he’s trying to appease, it’s just to honour Samhain – which, surprisingly, he manages to pronounce correctly. Furthermore, exploiting the kitschy Americana of the holiday to do this, using something as simple as the iconic Jack-O-Lantern mask as your delivery method, is fiendishly clever. It’s the natural escalation of the poison/razorblade candy that frequently worries parents but taken to a new extreme and has the added scare of the parent buying the mask and their own television activating it. There’s so much potential to explore the corporatization of Halloween and by-appointment controlled scares in our media-obsessed culture with an angle like this. Capitalism and trusted brands with smiling benevolent faces are the villains here, they are the equivalent to the ancient, faceless gods people were sacrificed to. That’s a great angle and if any of the Halloween films are worthy of a reboot/remake, this is the one. Alas, the film we have pays only basic lip service to these ideas and instead gets bogged down in its muddled, relatively scare-free mess of genres.
The ambiguity and melodramatic intensity of the ending is probably the most effective sequence in the film. The implication that if Dan did indeed fail and that potentially thousands of children had their heads melted, is pretty bleak. Sadly, it’s about the only part of the film that works. There is some low-level creep and tension to be had in the sequences set in the small rural town as the robots stand, sentinel-like, spying on our protagonists from the shadows but that itself is just a weaker, more be-suited rehash of the prime Michael Myers content in the previous films. But to director Tommy Lee Wallace’s credit, he’s got enough restraint to know how to employ static shots and relative silence to pull some chilling visuals from the sea of dumb he’s created.
As someone who enjoys a good, subtext-laden and ideas-rich horror, this film will always look like one giant missed opportunity. You can’t even realistically argue that its unmitigated failure led to the positive return of the franchise’s iconic killer since, well, just watch those five subsequent films for five reasons why. That said, the best kind of bad film is an interestingly bad one: The villain is what you’d get if the writers of Scooby-Doo had been tasked with writing a Halloween themed Roger Moore Bond film. His plan and the wider general mythology at play are certainly interesting even if their actual usage is disappointingly low on scares and just silly enough to largely undo some of the otherwise solid direction.
It’s definitely not an un-fun film but its ambitions far outweigh both its ability and credulity, rendering it a fascinating oddity of a film with its primary legacy being one of amusement. And of course, the greatest evil of all, that damned jingle.