The Horror Dysfunction of Halloween III: Season of the Witch

This review contains spoilers.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch ensured that seasonal cinema shoppers would accuse it of wrongdoing when it used a brand’s name without the branded content. John Carpenter and new writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace leaped from the stagnant slasher arc into new territory by attempting to summon the feeling of an entire time of year with an unconnected thriller concept. Their dream of a Halloween anthology represents the best ambition of Halloween III but also fixated its reception on Michael Myers’ absence, for good and bad. The initial audience may have been wrong to expect Michael Myers, but were they wrong to expect a witch? Today, the more pressing question than whether Carpenter and Wallace were right to omit their resident icon is whether Halloween III does anything well enough on its own terms to earn so much of the season’s airtime, other than angering its intended audience when it came out.

John Carpenter's lo-tech mood-setting (just give him four solid notes and one long take) may be off-the-cuff filmmaking, but it seems godlike compared to this imitation. Wallace’s script has a single idea – a mogul plans to use magic Halloween masks to kill the world’s children simply for the pleasure of it – that it has to grip as tightly as the last Snickers of the season and hope it doesn’t melt while the film procrastinates revealing it. With so little information to divulge, the bulk of the film suggests tension without establishing any in concrete terms, withholding intrigue until the final revelations like a kid trying to get one last round of candy despite needing a bathroom. The script is less a slow burn than a stalling tactic. It never learned Hitchcock’s most basic lesson about the bomb under the table, which is that you have to show it first. Imagine a Halloween that doesn't introduce Michael for 70 minutes, or a version of The Fog that waits that long to explain that dead spirits have roamed ashore.

The opening of Halloween III demonstrates the difference. A man in a suit strangles another man as a car drifts into him at 1 mph, crushing him as a haunted house sound effect screeches across the soundboard. The scene’s imagery is not inherently tense – it’s just a guy in a business suit who gets killed from being slowly hit by a car. As if this is less likely than a robot getting killed by one, the film reveals an hour later that this man was an android, suggesting these scenes could be tenser in retrospect with that knowledge. But compared to the metaphysical terror of the similar reveal in Alien, this "twist" in Halloween III changes little about the preceding action when spoken as casually as a drink order. Even the love interest turns out to be a robot in the end, which turns the film's final scenario into nonsense in retrospect. Why can't the villain stop the hero if he's running around the lab with one of his robots, presumably programmed for exactly that purpose? She even turns against him eventually (she just waits until after it has no impact on the plot). These twists create the feature-length version of the feeling that you “missed something,” faking intrigue in reverse regardless of the logical consequences. The original audience already felt this since the film is so disjointed from its series, but the plot earns the feeling on its own terms.

After Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) exposits to the audience in the form of the hero what they should feel tense about 70 minutes into the film, he seems to purposely let Dr. Challis (Tom Atkins) escape. Why else would he leave him unguarded in a room, without searching him, and not tell his robots to be on guard for his inevitable escape, or program the robot copy of his girlfriend to stop him, knowing that he’ll rescue her? Despite the villain’s knowing posture, the screenplay lets him down by lobotomizing him into a bystander in his own evil plan. Challis outwits his predicament by flicking a mask with Dude Perfect precision at a security camera. Yet since the robot guards don't do anything about it, the mask isn't even needed – their reaction would have been the same if he escaped on camera. The mask was for our benefit because that's what escape scenes "feel" like. The pretense that an effective thriller could be reverse-engineered by imitating the beats of one regardless of their dramatic context is the real problem with these setups, not the logic itself.

The tone of these scenes never suggests parody, which could have been another escape from criticism for the least logical of these little developments. Instead, Wallace goes out of his way to establish a villain with gravitas, including an effective scene in a test chamber that finally enunciates the stakes. Yet no matter how portentously O’Herlihy reads villainous monologues, he’s trapped in a script that treats anything out of sight of the characters as out of mind of the logic, as undetectable as a cart wheeling around on two pairs of tennis shoes while guards look in vain for two escaped prisoners like NPCs in an under-programmed stealth game (and as unsolvable as a camera with a party mask over it). If babies have object impermanence, Halloween III has logic impermanence. None of its beats actually exist until one of them says, “Peekaboo!”

This lack of dramatic attentiveness lowers the stakes in Halloween III, but the real issue is its reliance on them. In the absence of conventional horror thrills that could excuse illogical plot twists, the film conjures up the mood of a mystery thriller, which makes the logic of how this information is revealed its most crucial element, despite being its least refined. Even in the end when Challis screams over the phone about the third station’s commercial, he’s doing so in California, the time zone furthest West, meaning the commercial already aired in most places hours ago (or else played while most kids were out trick-or-treating). Wallace ends the film on the equivalent of a bomb timer at the 1-second mark to achieve an intended effect, but the actual beat of tension in the rationale of the movie is meaningless.

Another moment demonstrates this well enough to be funny – a nurse (Wendy Wessberg), who is helping Challis by running tests on the remains of the first murderer’s body, looks at an unidentified gear wheel in the rubble and says, “Oh my god” before trying to phone the sheriff’s office. Based on the context of the conversation, the audience is supposed to think she realized that the man was an android because that's the beat that kind of scene should have. But how? Was she going to tell the police that androids exist and they’re “out there somewhere?” The screenplay is so confident in the audience’s knowledge of the plot that it lets characters in on the secret just to fake tension for a minute. But it scoots past these moments quickly (an android murders her to stop the call), as if critical thinking is like heating a can of soup. If you take it off quickly enough, you can pretend that it never got hot.

In the meantime between these disembodied revelations, Challis attempts to solve a murder mystery with Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), whose father is killed during the film’s opening. The screenplay portrays his ability to exploit this situation to get some action as his membership benefit in the club of being a protagonist, with absolutely no other layer of emotional complexity. The scenes where he makes passes at his female employees or at Ellie with all the passion of a shrug are worthy of parody. The two of them enter their romantic positions at strategic lulls in the “thrills” of the film with clumsy indifference, like two forklifts powering up. These scenes are more uncomfortable than the over-telegraphed death scenarios and equally interpretable as failed romance or accidental romantic satire (you instinctually want to cover your eyes during them). Together, they recall the cringe of the more improbable Bond pairings but without even a whiff of their classy ignorance. Nelkin isn’t just 23 years younger than Atkins (and 23 years old at the time of filming). She also feels completely out of place with him.

As the villain’s critical ignorance seems to be a parody without the tone of one, it’s hard to peg the intended tone of Ellie’s willingness to forget about her father’s death and play a nose-wrinkling sex kitten for the rest of the film (“Relax, I’m older than I look”). The sad thing is that Nelkin is the best suited of anyone to the film's setup. She has naturally curious eyes and a fearful twinkle the audience instinctually roots for. Plenty of classic-yet-classless movies have tried to excuse much more nihilistic relationships, but Wallace’s script never clarifies if it is nihilistic, or serious romance to be viewed with envious intrigue despite having the emotional posture of a dad lusting after his kids’ babysitter. Nigel Kneale of the Quartermass series requested to have his name removed from the writing credits of Halloween III after an unknown amount of work on it. Regardless of why he left, his refusal to be implicated in it is more foreboding than any sequence in the film.

From the grandest action to the quietest romantic intrigue, Halloween III begs the question of what the on-screen drama intends to feel like. In a Bond film, perfectly tossing a mask onto a camera or winking off the death of a robot that replaced the main lover could be pulled off with comic indifference. In Big Trouble in Little China, the audience naturally forgives similar moments from a sense of Carpenter and Kurt Russell’s satirical charisma. But Halloween III lacks that energy if it intends to be taken lightly and lacks a stronger rationale if it intends its gravity to be grave. 70 minutes into the film, a montage of multiple cutaway shots of the kids venturing out into the night in their masks in various cities (and time zones) finally establishes the stakes (despite the disappointing absence of the masks’ obnoxiously advertised glow-in-the-dark feature). Dean Cundey’s imagery in general has more contributed to the film being overestimated than any other element, often framing mundane setups with the visual meaning they crave, such as a ring of computers acquiring the allusion of a sacrifice circle. But pretty images alone cannot reanimate the corpse of the plot that wears them. Cundey made the film more tolerable, but he couldn't fix it.

Despite this, the film’s reputation has been reincarnated on home video, as though the reverse polarity of its initially misunderstood reception now demands it to be defended as passionately as a beloved season. It’s a film that is now as unpopular to criticize as praise, placing any argument at the receiving end of a fandom’s seasonal witch hunt, as social media actively generalizes the film’s chilly reception to be solely the result of the refusal to accept the absence of Michael Myers. Though Wallace bravely ventured outside of this franchise’s boring box, intentions alone should never become a blank check on the fun of a whole time of year, allowing a film to hide its flaws through an overanalysis of its initial audience’s expectations. Beyond any estimation of its place in its franchise, Halloween III fails to fulfill its own promises, over-relying on romantic thriller mechanics that it is unable to compellingly develop. There’s no emotional pull at all when Challis sleeps with Ellie, or loses her, no catharsis when Cochran gets outwitted in a situation written without wit, no terror when he ambiguously turns into a limply smiling arts-and-crafts dummy at the end. O’Herlihy may have known the film was schlock, like a twisty caricature of Donald Pleasance’s gloomy sermons in the rest of the series. But if he did, he seems to have been the only one.

In the background of Halloween III’s perfunctory insta-thriller mechanics is a noble attempt to capture the grotesque enjoyment of the season, when the whole world seems less scary due to humanity’s mutual agreement to spend one night of the year worshipping its ugliest parts. Chasing this feeling, I revisit the corkscrew scream of tension of Alien, and make yearly pilgrimages to the eerie folkloric daylight of The Wicker Man (1973), a film that knows how to brew paranoia around a mystery thriller, built up by the battle of moral intentions between a pagan showman and a straight-arrow hero. I even go back to the gory thrum of Carpenter's Halloween. But I get no sense of this feeling from Halloween III, though it tries to convince the viewer that it contains it like it does everything – in retrospect. Compared to the powerhouses of the season, Halloween III is a jack-in-the-box. It doesn’t even work until you crank it up yourself.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Dino De Laurentiis Corporation/Universal Pictures

Cast & Crew

1 thought on “The Horror Dysfunction of Halloween III: Season of the Witch”

  1. I remember when I was a kid reading the back of the video box at the store and being completely confounded as to why the movie was called “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” when the copy text made absolutely no mention of it being a sequel, no reference to a “Halloween” film series, and certainly nothing about a witch. Mind you, I had no idea what the Halloween movies were about and had never heard of Michael Myers. This was my first exposure to any Halloween movie, and all I could tell was that it had the title of a sequel (a part 3, no less!) for no reason I could discern. It frustrated me to the point I was borderline offended.

    For a good long while there in the 90s it was by far the most common Halloween movie I’d encounter on store shelves, and just the sight of the box of that inexplicable movie rose my blood pressure. I never actually watched it until 20+ years later. It was aight.


Leave a Reply