Why 17 days? Because 17 is my favorite number.
Chew on that one a moment.
I have often said that the reason certain films develop cult followings is because they make their followers feel smarter for loving them (just talk to members of the A Clockwork Orange cult sometime). I don’t know what Halloween III: Season of the Witch makes its followers feel. Hell, I don’t know what it makes me feel. I think the old cliche of the fine line between madness and genius applies to this film: one must be a bit of both to love it.
Today, it is an anomaly, a pastiche of unconnected ideas, a cinematic contradiction that makes about as much sense as the country’s cultural obsession with the Kardashians. How is this possible? How can the same film be both masterpiece and misconstruction, a sort of cinematic Schrödinger’s cat (a metaphor that only works as long as you haven’t seen it)?
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is the third installment of the Halloween series and the only one that does not feature the serial killer Michael Myers. The intent of producer John Carpenter--who also directed the original Halloween--was to do a series of Twilight Zone-esque films, each one taking place on All Hallows Eve as a different standalone story rather than a continuation of a previous narrative. For this film, Carpenter enlisted Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale to pen the screenplay (Kneale later asked that his name be removed) and first-time director Tommy Lee Wallace (who rewrote Kneale’s script) to helm the production.
The result was this Schrödinger’s cat of a movie, both brilliant and baffling depending on who you talk to.
Later that night, a mysterious man in a dark business suit enters Grimbridge's hospital room, crushes the man’s skull with his bare hands, then immolates himself in the parking lot. Dr. Challis now suspects something fishy is going on. Although he is not a detective and has no personal connection to Grimbridge, decides to investigate.
Accompanied by Grimbridge's sexy daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), Challis’s follows clues to the small town of Santa Mira, California, home of the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory. Here Challis meets Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) and his cadre of killer robots (the men in the suits), each programmed to do his bidding.
Cochran, is the founder and owner of Silver Shamrock, and his company is manufacturing Halloween masks, which are implanted with microchips composed of miniscule fragments of Stonehenge (Cochran's people stole a chunk of the prehistoric monument and delivered it to the States).
The microchips in the masks are designed to receive a special signal transmitted through an annoying TV commercial that will trigger some sort of supernatural plague inside the mask-wearer’s head, releasing poisonous snakes and swarms of insects from the wearer’s various cranial orifices (ears, mouth, eye sockets, etc.). Cochran’s evil scheme is to sell masks to every child in America and through an extensive marketing campaign get them to wear their masks in front of the television on Halloween night for a prize giveaway, thus activating the mystical plague that will claim the lives of all children.
In December 2000, we visited Stonehenge around 9:00 a.m. one misty morning during a holiday in England. As I stood and posed for a picture in front of the monument, my nose began to bleed profusely, and it took almost 15 minutes to stem the flow. Later on the trip, we learned that my wife’s mother had died of a massive hemorrhage, which had started around 1:00 a.m. in Seattle, Washington--or 9:00 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time--the same morning we visited Stonehenge.
In other words, my mother-in-law’s hemorrhaging, which led to her death, began at roughly the very moment my nose began to copiously bleed as I stood in front of the monument. Coincidence, perhaps, but it sure didn’t feel like it. If Stonehenge has that kind of power, who knows what else it could do?
Setting that aside, however, what does Halloween III: Season of the Witch mean? Some of the more hipster critics have suggested that the film is a commentary on neo-consumerism ... but I don't know. To paraphrase Nick Carlton (William Hurt) in The Big Chill, sometimes you just have to let art ... flow ... over you.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a product of the high '80s--1982, to be exact--when we as a people hovered on the brink of extinction. Hounded by the Cold War and a weakening détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, our world felt a little bit like Fascist Italy on the eve of the Allied invasion. My memory of those years is colorized by a sense of imminent catastrophe. Nuclear holocaust loomed on the horizon, and cautionary films like The Day After, Threads, and Testament helped us visualize our own demise. There was no refractory sense of well-being after watching these films. The end of the world was all too real and appeared to be all too near.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch was released in theaters in October 1982, but I did not see it until a year later. It was my first semester at Emporia State, and I was living in the dorms and out from under my parents’ roof for the first time in my life. Those were difficult, lonely times, but gestalt has enchanted my memories of them.
One October night, outcast and alone, I wandered into a bar called FUBAR’s looking to find my people. What I discovered was a cadre of hipster uber-geeks who invited me back to someone’s apartment for medicinal libations. Minutes later, I found myself in a smoky studio loft, drinking cheap vodka with green food coloring and pretending it was absinthe, listening to Lou Reed and watching late-night HBO with the volume down.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch was HBO’s film du mois in preparation for the coming of Samhain, and while everyone else sat around passing reefer and discussing Ezra Pound, I was glued to the TV, watching the ending where Tom Atkins does battle with a murderous Stacy Nelkin robot (perhaps an homage to Stacey’s busted stint as a replicant in Blade Runner). It was the first of many Halloween III excerpts I would see in the coming weeks.
I did not find my people, but I did find Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
It bears repeating: Halloween III: Season of the Witch is absurd, perhaps moreso today. If you step back and go all Pauline Kael on the film, there is so much wrong with it that it isn’t even funny. My wife, who had never seen Halloween III until last Saturday, fired off a concatenation of questions. Just listing them here makes me question why I ever loved the film:
- Why does Dr. Challis feel the need to investigate Grimbridge’s death, when he has nothing personally at stake in it other than blind curiosity?
- Why does Ellie, clearly in mourning after the death of her father, jump so readily into bed with Dr. Challis (and this isn’t grief-stricken “I need to be held” sex; this is jovial “I brought lingerie, let’s party” sex)?
- If Cochran’s robots are so strong and powerful, how is Dr. Challis able to destroy one by punching a hole in its stomach with his fist?
- How is Silver Shamrock able to mass-produce enough masks to distribute all across America from a single plant in a small town?
- How did Conal Cochran get that chunk of Stonehenge past customs (“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you” is his only explanation)?
- Why does Cochran want to kill all the children, other than to resurrect the macabre elements of the Gaelic festival Samhain? What purpose does it serve? As a savvy businessman, why would he want to mass murder his target consumers?
The idea of a corporate business man willing to annihilate his end-users to serve some darker, more supernatural purpose … that’s creepy stuff there. Can you imagine if Ray Kroc had gone to the dark side and poisoned Big Macs so as to sacrifice consumers to Cthulhu? Goofy thought on one hand … but scary as hell if Cthulhu is real. What man would be willing to destroy millions of people--the same people who made him rich--to serve a dark god?
It’s also kind of freaky that Cochran is the only living person in the factory. All other living workers have been dismissed (the wino that Challis meets complains of losing his job), and his entire staff has been replaced by killer robots. Again, we have the “pod people” concept of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a damned freaky idea if handled correctly. Humanity lost, people wearing out their usefulness … all mortal dreads that become more powerful as we grow older.
Still, despite its many flaws, Halloween III: Season of the Witch works for me.
And also it does not.
It wants to be something audacious, but it lacks the courage to follow through on its convictions (which, to be fair, could be the result of studio interference). It is not bad enough to be B-movie garbage, but not good enough to be the masterpiece it could have been.
And yet, it manages to rise above mediocrity.
As I have said before, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is both brilliant and baffling, a cross between a masterpiece and a mass of pieces. A shifting zeitgeist exposes its many flaws, but a part of me still loves it. I watch it longing for the past, for a time when I turned to cinematic horrors to distract myself from real-life ones, an age when I could forgive a film its flaws if it at least tried to sell me on the goods.
By the way, the film was produced for $2.5 million and only made $14.4 million at the box office. This makes the film a flop: $14 million is peanuts according to Hollywood standards, even in 1982; it also makes the film a hit: the film recouped almost six times its investment.
Schrodinger’s cat, man. Schrodinger’s freaking cat.
Previous Days of Halloween
Day 1 – Baby’s Breath
Day 2 – Phantom of the Paradise
Day 3 – The Shining (miniseries)
Day 4 – 28 Days Later
Day 5 – 28 Weeks Later
Day 6 – Dawn of the Dead (original)
Day 7 – Dawn of the Dead (remake)
Day 8 – The Howling
Day 9 – Saló or the 120 Days of Sodom
Day 10 – Romper Stomper
Day 11 – The Valley of Gwangi
Day 12 – Kolchak: The Night Stalker (entire series)
Day 13 – The Hills Have Eyes (original)
Day 14 – The Hills Have Eyes (remake)
Day 15 – Let the Right One In
Day 16 – A Nightmare On Elm Street