I love the idea of a cult film. If a movie is lambasted by critics or a failure at the box office at the time of its release yet goes on to get a small following years or decades later, then it’s considered “cult.” However, they still call The Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult film, even though it’s gone on to make more money in the box office over a long period of time than most major hits nowadays, and it wasn’t a flop at the time by any means. That’d be like calling Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon a “cult album.” At any rate, some movies really are “cult” and I think the most prevalent reason for that is being severely underrated at the time, for whatever reason. One of the most underrated horror films of all time has to be Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a movie that’s certainly not perfect, but is much better than almost anybody thinks it is, even if it lacks a certain William Shatner-masked killer.
The story behind this movie is fairly legendary at this point, but for the uninitiated: John Carpenter’s Halloween was a huge success and producer Irwin Yablans and executive producer Moustapha Akkad were eager to make a second one, which they did, continuing “The Night HE Came Home.” While not as successful as its predecessor, and lacking a lot of Carpenter’s virtuosity (he wrote and produced and did a few reshoots himself, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a Carpenter movie), Halloween II was still enough of a success to warrant another one. But Carpenter had a different idea for the series. Instead of focusing on Michael Myers, who had certainly been blown up in the previous movie, every subsequent Halloween film would be a different, unrelated horror story taking place on October 31st. An anthology series. For the first of these, Carpenter’s friend and editor Tommy Lee Wallace acting as director.
Wallace was also given sole screenwriting, inexplicably. The original idea by Carpenter and co-producer Debra Hill was for the movie to be a “pod movie” instead of a “knife movie,” and so Carpenter turned to British sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale, the author of the Quatermass serials Carpenter so loved. The film’s distributor Dino De Laurentiis wanted more gore and violence, and so Carpenter did a rewrite of Kneale to add these elements. Kneale was unhappy with the result and wanted his name removed from the movie. Carpenter likewise didn’t want to be credited because he felt it was Kneale’s script. But SOMEONE had to be credited, so Wallace got that title card as well, even though by the director’s own admission his contributions are very slight.
Anyway, the history of this movie is really fascinating, but what about the movie itself! Well, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is certainly a weird little film, but one that rewards. It’s all about an ancient conspiracy involving witchcraft, androids, and computer chips, all involving Halloween masks and killing children. So, fun is what I’m saying.
On a dark night of October 23rd, a man named Grimbridge runs for his life from mysterious men in business suits, all wearing gloves. He eventually makes it to a gas station and collapses after telling the attendant that “they’re going to kill us all!” He is also clutching a jack-o-lantern mask. The man is taken to the hospital where he’s attended to by Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), a married father who doesn’t seem to care too much for his family, hence the late-night shifts. While in the hospital, another man in a suit enters, finds Grimbridge’s room, and kills him. Then, as Challis desperately chases after him, the man gets into a sedan and it promptly explodes, immolating the murderer in the process. Very peculiar to say the least. The only bit of evidence Challis has is the mask, which bears the trademark of Silver Shamrock Novelty Company.
Grimbridge’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) is also investigating her father’s disappearance and murder and she and Challis team up, figuring out that Grimbridge, a shop owner, had business at the Silver Shamrock factory in the sleepy town of Santa Mira, CA. Challis also asks a friend of his at the coroner’s office to look at the remains of the man in the car explosion and she finds something inorganic, but is killed by another man in a suit via a drill to the head before she can report her findings. Challis and Ellie go up to Santa Mira pretending to be a married couple (and have sex later…he’s a terrible husband and father) and check into the town’s only hotel, where the proprietor says the livelihood of the town is based entirely on Silver Shamrock and its owner, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy). They decide they need to go to the factory, especially after Challis sees in the registry that Mr. Grimbridge also stayed in that hotel only a few days before.
They aren’t the only ones visiting the factory, of course; two different store owners, one with wife and kid in tow, are also taking a tour. Cochran himself, a seemingly jovial Irishman, conducts the tour and wants to make sure every kid in the state gets a Silver Shamrock Halloween mask. He ensures this by airing a series of insipid commercials with a jingle to the tune of “London Bridge,” (“X more days ’til Halloween, Halloween, Halloween. X more days ’til Halloween, Silver Shamrock”) which would surely make anyone want to buy a mask… There are only three designs, though, a witch, a jack-o-lantern, and a skull, but apparently every kid needs to have one.
Throughout the factory, more men in business suits walk around, looking suspiciously at Challis and Ellie. Eventually, the pair get too close and are taken hostage where Cochran reveals his evil (and kind of ridiculous) plan: He wants to bring back the Ye Olde Worlde ways and the macabre traditions of the Halloween precursor, the Gaelic festival of Samhain. Implanted in the trademark button of every single Silver Shamrock Halloween mask is a tiny piece of Stonehenge (yes, really) and when the final commercial airs, when every child with a mask is meant to put it on, a subliminal signal will be sent out which will melt the head of every child wearing it, releasing insects and snakes and things to kill off the parents as well. It’s witchcraft for the modern age! It’s marketing used for the evil it can do! Cochran also invented androids (the men in suits) to do his bidding, and made a circle of computer screens to mimic that of a dark pagan ritual. It’s ingenious in a “how exactly is that supposed to work?” kind of way.
Ultimately, Challis is able to escape and free Ellie after overloading the witchcraft system and exploding Cochran after he’d turned into a piece of granite (just go with it). They escape in a car as the Silver Shamrock factory explodes, but they still need to stop the commercial from going out. Unfortunately, Ellie has been replaced by an android at some point and tries to kill Challis, who is forced to stomp on her head. He eventually makes it to the same gas station from the beginning of the movie and calls the TV stations as time ticks down. All of them agree for whatever reason except one. He shouts into the phone, and the camera, as the screen goes black.
Now, I’m not here to tell you Halloween III: Season of the Witch makes any kind of logical sense, but it’s definitely atmospheric and creepy in its own way. The cinematography was done by the great Dean Cundey, who did the original Halloween as well as several other Carpenter films, and so it looks gorgeous. Atkins is a really compelling leading man who gives just the right amount of sleaze to the character, who let us not forget is totally cheating on his long-suffering wife and leaving his family to fend for themselves while he investigates this. O’Herlihy is also a great villain, able to go from warm and avuncular to sinister and intimidating on a dime. You almost buy the plan simply because of the actor’s conviction.
Overall, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a damn fun movie and one that should be the second half of a double feature with the original Halloween for you this year.