Fear Flashback is a semi-regular review column of classic (and not-so-classic) horror movies and TV shows.
“Enjoy the horror-thon, Doctor, and don’t forget to watch the big giveaway afterwards.“
This may have been the first Halloween movie I ever saw. Probably on HBO in the 80’s. I remember enjoying it a lot – especially the scene with the kid in the pumpkin mask. It added the requisite amount of ‘ick’ in a relatively bloodless film. The androids also reminded me of Maskatron – a villain from the Six Million Dollar Man series, always a plus.
In the years since first watching the movie I, unfortunately, bought into the prevailing opinion that Halloween III was something of a misstep, a mistake on the part of Carpenter and Hill. Season of the Witch, this line of thought goes, is simply a mediocre horror film unfortunately slipped into the middle of a classic slasher series. Something that would have disappeared with nary a ripple in the cinematic landscape had the Halloween name not been attached.
But I still, secretly, in my heart of hearts, kinda sorta liked the film. I liked the masks, I liked the creepy town, I liked the androids. I even liked the title sequence, with its digital play on the previous installments use of a jack o’ lantern. I hid that from my fellow horror fans, however – like I hid enjoying The Fixx from my heavy metal friends.
I’d kept an eye out on Netflix, though, hoping it would show up eventually. I mean, I didn’t want to PAY to find out that my memories were soft-focus fantasies and that everyone was right about how crappy a film it was. Then a few years back I found a used copy at Bullmoose and, on impulse, bought it. I was glad I did – I enjoyed the hell out of it. And if it maybe wasn’t as good as I remembered it also wasn’t as bad as I feared. Is it a classic? Maybe not, but it’s a good time and there are plenty of horror movies I’ve watched (and owned) that don’t even make that bar. When it got mentioned as part of the (awesome, you should really check it out) 100 Greatest and Worst Sequels of All Time series this past Monday I jumped at the idea of watching it again.
My used copy of the Fear Factory blu-ray release is still the one to get, though Universal released a stand-alone version in 2015. That disc apparently uses the same transfer as the Scream Factory one, but doesn’t have any of the (admittedly skimpy) extras. It’s probably not necessary to buy Halloween III on blu-ray, to be honest. The picture is good, but it’s not a showpiece of cinematography and a DVD should hold you fine.
I really like the opening sequence of Halloween III. I’ve got an interest in the use of mundane locations for horror, so the underpass, the junkyard, the gas station – public places that we all pass by or interact with every day – being presented in a horror context was right up my alley. (Alleys are creepy regardless of time of day.) Older guy on the run from mysterious pursuers, cornered in a junkyard where he manages to pin one of the men – all of them in business suits – between two cars. He flees to a gas station where he collapses, muttering “they’re going to kill us all.”
Oh yeah, that’s the stuff! Nicely ominous opening, followed up by a hospital sequence that is also pretty horrific. One of the pursuers finds the old man, now in a hospital room, still clutching a Halloween jack o’ lantern mask. And then proceeds to kill him by putting a thumb and forefinger into the old man’s eyes and pulling his skull apart. Though not particularly gory it’s genuinely disturbing to watch. The murderer is pursued into the parking lot by the doctor on staff, Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), but douses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire while in his car. Which explodes. Because every car in every movie is extremely flammable and full of explosives.
The rest of the film concerns Dr. Dan and the old man’s daughter, Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) trying to find out what happened. This leads them to the small town of Santa Mira, California. (You may recognize the name as that of the town in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) The elder Grimbridge ran a toy and novelty shop and had driven to Santa Mira to pick up an order of Halloween masks from the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory.
Except for Ellie and Dr. Dan hooking up (I didn’t buy it in The Fog either, Atkins), I love everything about the parts of the film that take place in Santa Mira. The way townspeople stare out of shop windows at outsiders driving by. The mysterious men in business suits who are so disturbingly similar. The whispered warnings of the town drunk (shades of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”). The fact that Jamie Lee Curtis is the voice on every telephone. The ‘misfire’ when one of the masks turns a woman’s head into insect-laden mush. Even the Carpenter-esqu jump scares don’t bother me. (Taking a drink every time a shadowy figure crosses the screen accompanied by a dramatic music stinger could get you alcohol poisoning.)
Ellie and Dan manage to finagle their way into a tour of the factory and meet the mysterious owner, Conal Cochran. The tour studiously avoids the ‘Final Processing’ area of the factory, however. And then Ellies sees her father’s car in a storage area despite being assured that he had shown up, picked up his order, and left. She’s blocked from seeing further by more of those business suited guys and she and Dan decide to try and bring in the authorities. Of course it’s already too late for that, and by the time Dan realizes that all the phones are out of order Ellie has been taken to the factory.
The movie, which has done a great job of building mood and tension up to this point, falls down a bit at the inevitable ‘and now I reveal to you my cunning plan’ part of things. Dan is captured and Cochran explains his intent to use the masks – incorporating a piece of Stonehenge in every tag – to… well, firstly to turn children’s heads into a mass of snakes and insects, which is demonstrated for Dan in a scene that still grosses out, despite not being quite as nasty as my memory of it. After that… well, not sure, really. Lots of dead kids and some dead parents later they’ll have, what, exactly? I think it’s supposed to be some kind of sacrifice, to pay homage to the old gods of Samhain. It’s not clear though, and because of that the film loses some of its oomph.
I’ve heard that the original story (by Nigel Kneale, of the Quatermass films, The Stone Tape and lots of other good stuff) had Cochran be revealed as a 900 year old demon, using the mass deaths to open a gateway between the old gods and the world they once ruled. Which would have been awesome.
The battle with Cochran and his defeat is also confusing – I think Dan activates a bunch of the chips somehow, causing a short circuit between the Stonehenge fragment and the computers. The fight with Ellie-ganger seems extraneous and tacked on and once again slows down the pace. (And also doesn’t make much sense, as the other ‘robo people’ get short-circuited by the chip/Stonehenge thing earlier.) The final scene, with Dr. Dan screaming into the phone for some network guy to shut down the television show that will activate all the masks is pretty good though, and is especially fun when watching at home, because the actual final shot is of him screaming at YOU to turn it off, please God just TURN IT OFF!! As if you’re responsible for what happens next!
It doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny – though that’s a fault with a lot of 80’s horror movies – but I think Halloween III would have done alright if it had been allowed to stand on its own. I know Carpenter and Hill had hoped to widen the franchise with this, but they miscalculated the popularity of Michael Myers. Maybe in some alternate universe Season of the Witch succeeded and instead of a series of slasher films of variable quality there’s a series of Halloween themed films… of variable quality.
Not a masterpiece, by any standards, but a weird little horror film that’s worth a shot despite being a “not really Halloween” movie.