Not Guilty: Halloween III: Season of the Witch

In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us that we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. For this most marvelous month for fans of monsters and maniacs, we take a look at the much-maligned early '80s horror film ... Halloween III: Season of the Witch.

1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch is often unfairly branded the unloved stepchild of the Halloween franchise and an oddball entry in the catalog of Carpenter-spawned slasher films, but it’s one I’m irresistibly drawn to every fall when I pull out my prime-time lineup of horror DVDs.   'Round about September, that frisky Silver Shamrock synthesizer fanfare begins to burrow insidiously into my brain like a chrome Phantasm death sphere, and I know it’s almost time.

So, why should you give Season of the Witch another look? 


After the ho-hum Halloween II sequel, executive producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad made the unexpected 180-degree decision to make a sequel that had absolutely NOTHING to do with the previous Halloween films, leaving poor Michael Myers standing alone with his glinting butcher knife and abandoning the bloody course first set by John Carpenter.  All that slashing and stabbing and moaning can get a bit repetitive, and after being torched in Halloween II, the silent stalker needed to air himself out a bit.

Written and directed by first-timer Tommy Lee Wallace, who later went on to direct the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It, Halloween III is a smart, quirky and sometimes seriously disturbing horror flick you can't help but admire for its ambition.  Wallace was art director on the original Halloween and was actually offered the chair for the sequel, but declined.


At first put off by the notion of another routine Halloween film, producers Debra Hill and John Carpenter had faith enough in the brand name to venture outside the traditional maniac-killer screenplay and envisioned an annual Halloween-themed movie anthology that would celebrate other aspects of the haunted season, in this case witchcraft, technology and classic fairy tales. 

When the film was released on Oct. 22, 1982, the public gathered hoping see more Michael Myers and felt cheated by its sci-fi/occult/mystery plot.  The movie collected just $14 million in box office, making it the least successful of any Halloween film, and it was chopped to candy-corn bits by critics. 


The first screenplay draft was written by award-winning British sci-fi author Nigel Kneale of the beloved Quatermass movies, and delivered a psychological tale infused with Druidic witchcraft and atmospheric suspense, but little gore.   Studio notes insisted on more violence and blood, and Kneale promptly exited and had his name stricken from the project.


Halloween III contains some classic performances by several outstanding character actors, a bat guano-goofy plot centered around a mad Irish toymaker, clockwork robots, the Festival of Samhain, Stonehenge and a computer chip plot to turn trick-or-treaters’ craniums into creamy, insect-crawling oatmeal.  The capable cast includes veteran Irish actor Dan O’Herlihy, who plays the diabolical warlock Conal Cochran, owner of the mysterious Silver Shamrock Novelties, which makes lethal Halloween masks and amusement items.  In the original screenplay, O’Herlihy’s role was the 3,000-year old witch of the film’s title.  Somewhere, that plot device mostly vanished.  


Also starring is the always-solid Tom Atkins, a staple in John Carpenter movies who had roles in 1980’s The Fog and 1981’s Escape From New York, and a sexy Stacey Nelkin, who somehow ends up a homicidal android in the kooky finale. The sinister speech by O’Herlihy about the darker origins of Halloween in his Celtic lands when “the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children” is especially chilling, with the commanding actor's thick Irish brogue used to great effect. Wallace also inserts some eerie, WTF scares, like the gory, face-melting “misfire” in the motel room, then reveals some ludicrous prop choices, such as when Challis’ doctor friend examines mechanical parts found when one of the toymaker’s android thugs is destroyed.  Inside the plastic tray is clearly what we recognize as the innards of a bicycle handlebar bell.  You’d think a synthetic human would utilize tech a bit more advanced than a Schwinn bike accessory.


It’s the brooding electronica score contributed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, who composed music for Halloween and Halloween II, however, that gleams brightest in this trippy treasure.  Anyone who sees Halloween III will have the addictive "Happy Halloween" tune entrenched in their skull for 10 thousand years; trust me on this point and be forewarned.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, as the holiday has never had a catchy theme song ... until now.


That numbing jingle enticing children to purchase tainted, glow-in-the-dark Silver Shamrock masks and the seizure-inducing jack-o'-lantern flashing across the screen were hypnotic when seen in a big theater, but lose some of their effect at home.  Though a failure at the box office, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has its own peculiar charms and deserves an asterisk-dotted entry in the legacy of Halloween movies.  It’s a goofy B movie at its heart, with a strange script, but give it a viewing and maybe it will gain a place of honor on your watch list when the leaves start falling.  It would be six years before the franchise recovered enough to give us Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, but this cerebral ‘80s gem is worthy of another chance to treat. 

Don't forget the big giveaway at nine!  Watch the magic pumpkin! 

Do you think Season of the Witch is worth re-living, or was it too much a departure? Let us know in the comments!

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