Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 31: Halloween III

October 31st: Halloween III (1982)

One of the reasons I’ve always loved Halloween III is because it’s so damn weird. Some of its strangeness comes from observation (how strange it is to see kids running around in gross masks once a year), but most of it is inspired. This is a kitchen sink film and then some: a doctor investigating a vast conspiracy, robot henchmen, witchcraft… Stonehenge? Some aspects of Halloween III simply make no logical sense at all. Writer and director Tommy Lee Wallace made one of horror cinema's true historical curiosities, and decorated it extensively with carved pumpkins. Halloween III is a favorite of mine, and I’ve chosen it as the cap to The October Ordeal.

While Halloween III is generally well-remembered by genre fans now, it failed to excite at the box office. John Carpenter intended to kick-start a yearly series of diverse films under the “Halloween” banner. Unfortunately, fans simply didn’t want a Halloween without Michael Myers. Pity, as this film has more life than the sequels that followed it. The back of the original VHS release spends half the synopsis on the back cover explaining that Michael Myers in not in fact in Halloween III. Halloween IV is even apologetically sub-titled “The Return of Michael Myers.” It's hard to imagine what all the fuss was about. While this film is a self-contained story outside the Michael Myers continuity, it contains enough fun references and in-jokes to at least place it in the same universe.

There are of course differences. John Carpenter’s music—for instance—is considerably more upbeat, at times approaching disco. Many aspects of this film feel strangely familiar yet also displaced. At times it feels like an odd riff on the horror genre altogether. Truth be told, Halloween III is more of a Sci-Fi mystery than a fright film. While it may not be a typically "scary" horror film, Halloween III finds its inspiration in the American holiday itself, way more so than the first two films. While the first Halloween makes great use of the season, its concern is not the particulars of Halloween itself. Not only are the aesthetics of the holiday amplified here, but the ancient origins of Halloween as well, specifically its roots in pagan Samhain and Hallowe’en.

Tom Atkins is right at home as an alcoholic absentee dad cracking an occult conspiracy. I have no idea why he’s playing a doctor (Dr. Dan Challis); he plays it the same way he’d play a cop or detective. He's casually drawn into the pulp plot when a dying man in his ward exclaims “They’re going to kill us all” while clutching a pumpkin. Challis then sets out to find the killer, perhaps out of boredom. Dan O’ Herlihy is characteristically professional as the witch CEO of Silver Shamrock, a mask-making corporation based in sleepy Santa Mira, CA (the location of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Kids nationwide can’t seem to get enough of Silver Shamrock’s colorful masks, despite the fact they come in only about three varieties.

Silver Shamrock’s masks, unfortunately, are deadly. Each mask contains a coin chipped off of Stonehenge (?) which, when triggered, will lazer a kid’s face off and release bugs and snakes from the skull (??). Staging it as a media event, at nine PM on Halloween, Silver Shamrock plans to broadcast the image of a blinking Jack O’ Lantern to trigger the deadly masks (???). Conal Cochran (O’ Herlihy) plans to use the event as a way to punish ignorant kids. As a pagan wizard, Cochran is disgusted by Trick or Treats; he still sees Samhain as a time to honor the dead and confront mortality. Out of desire to “Control [the] environment” and appease an angry universe, Cochran has planned this mass sacrifice via TV and Toys, turning Halloween’s commerciality against itself. Television itself features in the film; a set is on anywhere Challis goes. Halloween III actually manages to exploits Halloween clichés in an interesting way, more so than Halloween. John Carpenter’s original film may be the masterpiece, but Halloween III is truer to its namesake.

Instead of the other Halloween films, the obvious reference point is Larry Cohen. There’s a playfulness here that reminds of The Stuff and Q. From the noncommittal Hitchcockisms to the hard-boiled characters and action, there’s a lot in common between Wallace and Cohen, throwing all ingredients into a blender so unapologetically being the most striking similarity.

Halloween III features a great (and reflexive) ending, ambiguous in one sense yet also definitive. Far too many horror franchise endings seem only to facilitate the next sequel. While it may be a good distance from the first film in quality, I argue that this is the second best film in the series, perhaps because it's the most unorthodox entry. The October Ordeal has been an ordeal, and this is the best film I could have chosen to end it with. Halloween III rocks, and belongs on the Halloween-party marathon list of any rowdy crew of drunken pagans.


Anonymous said...

Great review, couldn't have put it better myself. And this is the first intelligent review I have read for Halloween III.

Gregory said...

Thank you.

I think attitudes about Season of the Witch have changed in the last few years, and people are re-evaluating the film finally.