Monday, 31 October 2011

Horror Season - Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Happy, happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween.
Happy, happy Halloween, Silver Shamrock!

Michael Myers is dead. Halloween II made that crystal clear. The writing/producing duo of John Carpenter and Debra Hill ensured there was no spooky cliff-hanger to sting the ending with and hint at further misadventures with the masked stalker. The night he came home was finally over.

However, the Halloween name was now hot stuff, having risen far above its indie origins. And after the financial success of its first sequel, another entry in the series was a given. But what could they do now that Myers was no more? The decision was to take the series in a whole new direction – a new and unique Halloween story to be released on an annual basis. Carpenter and Hill stayed on as producers, Tommy Lee Wallace was picked to direct, while acknowledged sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) was drafted in to write the screenplay (though he chose to have his name taken off the credits when Wallace was tasked with sprucing up the script).

The end result was... interesting.      

In Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a distraught shopkeeper holding a Silver Shamrock pumpkin mask is chased into a hospital by a group of mysterious men in suits. Although seemingly safe in the care of Dr. Dan Challis (cult legend Tom Atkins), one of his pursuers calmly enters the hospital and brutally murders the bed-ridden man before (even more calmly) committing suicide via the classic art of instantly exploding car. Mystified by the incident, Challis ditches his divorced wife and their Halloween-obsessed kids so he can team up with the dead man’s daughter, Ellie (career bombing Stacey Nelkin), to uncover the truth. With only the Halloween mask and Ellie’s father’s delivery records to go on, they travel to the secluded “company town” of Santa Mira, where Silver Shamrock is based. Once there, they soon discover an evil plot masterminded by Conal Cochran (Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy), a demonic toy maker in command of an army of androids who intends to massacre the children of America on the night of Halloween using novelty masks infused with ancient, head-melting power harnessed from Stonehenge.    

Now isn’t that the greatest synopsis you’ve ever read? Don’t you just want to go on Amazon and order a copy right now? It’s simply fantastic. Madder than a wheelie bin full of cats, but fantastic. You can instantly tell from even the briefest plot summary that Season of the Witch is a true gem, and about as far a unique departure from the initial slasher films as you could expect.

Sadly, that’s exactly why this film fell into obscurity. Audiences weren’t prepared for such a different approach to a series which had previously focused on the exploits of a murderous babysitter hunter. So Season of the Witch was considered a failure, and has been singled out as “That one without Michael Myers” ever since, with many people not liking it simply because of that reason... which continues to baffle me. I cannot for one moment comprehend why anyone would not enjoy this film. It’s got to be one of the most underrated horror movies ever made! There’s far too much to love about it. Yes, I know it’s silly, but just hear me out.

For one thing, at least as far as I’m concerned, the plot is genius. Androids? Stonehenge? A megalomaniac who wants to dissolve our heads into a seeping mess of snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies? Oh, yes please! Granted, it takes a while getting to all that, but it’s worth the wait. What I love is how they skirt around certain major plot issues. Like, how did Cochran even get a whole piece of Stonehenge there in the first place? All we’re ever told is: “We had a time getting it here. You wouldn’t believe how we did it.” And that’s all we need to know!                 

How about Tom Atkins as a star, right? As the Chuck Norris of horror, he alone is worth giving this a watch for. Maybe I’m biased, but it’s great to see Atkins get top billing for once. Too bad we so rarely see more of him in anything close to a leading role. Maybe you could count the first half of Maniac Cop, but Bruce Campbell pretty much took over that didn’t he? In regards to his part here, Challis is a funny character – he’s likeable in a burly way (you just wanna hug him), but how am I supposed to feel about a guy who neglects his kids to run off on a wacky adventure? And how does he manage to enchant all these ladies who are about half his age? First Jamie Lee Curtis in The Fog, and now Stacey Nelkin! Is he really all that man? We are not worthy.

Creating a new villain after Michael Myers was going to be a daunting task. After all, who could even begin to measure up? Yet somehow with Cochran, they nailed it. On the surface, he appears like the coolest grandfather of all time. How could anyone not love a guy who owns a toy factory? Then, after his true intentions become apparent, Cochran shifts gears to full-on evil. The scene where he lectures Challis on the sacrificial history of Halloween is chilling and a definite highlight.

Halloween... the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red... with the blood of animals and children.

... Ho-ly crap. O’Herlihy clearly relishes playing such a maniacal role. And best of all, much like with Myers (before all that druid crap, anyway), his character is shrouded in mystery. Who is he? What is he? We may never know for sure. 

Truthfully, the other characters here are barely worth mentioning. Nelkin is little more than dead weight hanging off Atkins’ manliness (but to be fair she is a good actor who thankfully refrains from screaming all the time, and does have a few late surprises in store); Challis’ family are virtually nonexistent (his ex-wife is pretty much just a voice on the phone); while everyone else is introduced just so they can be gruesomely killed a few scenes later (let me tell you now, that one happy family is DOOMED).     

The original Halloween has always been praised for its ability hold back on graphic violence in favour of a terrifying atmosphere. Halloween II was, by comparison, a solid ninety minutes of slashed throats and syringes in eyes. I’ve always liked how Season of the Witch manages to find a spot somewhere in the middle. Deaths are far less frequent than they were in II, but they’re arguably even nastier. Thanks to the more fantastical plot elements, we get to see a man’s face being literally broken, a head being twisted clean off and the after-effects of a laser beam to the mouth! All good stuff.         

Two of the most important previous Halloween elements make a return here: Dean Cundey’s moody cinematography; and John Carpenter’s (with Alan Howarth) inimitable synthesiser score. That pitch-perfect framing and lighting, combined with those eerie bleeps and bloops make for yet another film which positively drips with an almost tangible ambience. In other words, this is the kind of movie that’s been proven by science to be best viewed in the very early hours of the morning, with bonus points awarded should you watch it on a worn out VHS tape. Am I making excuses for my decade-old DVD which isn’t even presented in the correct aspect ratio? Perhaps. Universal are supposedly working on a Blu-ray (probably timed for the film’s thirtieth anniversary next year), so if I’m still updating this blog in twelve months time, then I’ll be sure to give it a review.

Despite combining the best of both worlds, the film as a whole is never especially frightening (the infamous Silver Shamrock jingle will invade your dreams, mind you). It’s really just a LOT of creepy, highly imaginative fun. As for the ending... oh my god. That’s another story. I don’t dare give what happens away on the off chance that you haven’t seen it, but it’s bleak, ballsy and all kinds of intense. It may not have the unexpected shock factor of something like The Mist’s closing frames, but those final few sequences are still some of the most emotionally exhausting moments ever committed to celluloid.     

At least the film ended on a high note, because with its critical and financial failure, it was all over for Season of the Witch, and the proposed annual Halloween movie plan along with it. I often wonder how it might have fared if the title hadn’t been prefixed with Halloween III. Well, regardless of what could have been, the series continued. Six years later, using some supremely uninspired screenwriting skills, Myers and (even more incredulously) Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis were brought back for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. From then on, it’s been a continuous string of Myers-starring sequels and reboots, with Halloween 3D expected to make an appearance within the next couple of years (apparently featuring, funnily enough, Tom Atkins himself in some capacity). And while there’d be a slight highlight with Laurie Strode’s eventual comeback in H20, most of them merely progressed further away from John Carpenter’s original vision.

But none of them were ever as remarkably original... or admittedly outright bonkers as Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  

No comments:

Post a Comment