John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween was a smash hit (and one of the most financially successful independent films ever made), and for good reason: It was a tense, atmospheric thriller that relied on its mastery of suspense to scrounge up scares, rather than over-the-top blood and gore. It had a stellar lead in final girl Laurie Strode, launching Jaime Lee Curtis to well-earned stardom overnight. And, most importantly, it had what every horror film desperately wants: An iconic, marketable villain.
Yes, in the years since its initial release, Halloween’s Michael Myers (aka ‘The Shape’) has gone down in the annals of horror history with the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Chucky as one of the genre’s most recognizable mascots. Not simply just a fixture of horror iconography, Michael has, like many of his contemporaries, eclipsed the notoriety of his source material, and has become a distinct pop-culture figure in his own right, his pale, masked visage becoming almost synonymous with the holiday season.
And yet, despite his noteworthy status, his creators would be largely sick of him after just one sequel, released in 1981. Not a fan of endless returns for horror villains, and already out of ideas for the character after just two outings, Carpenter and his writing partner Debra Hill opted instead to take the franchise in a more anthological direction. Since the title of “Halloween” really had no thematic relevance to the story of Michael Myers, save the time of year when the story was set, it freed the filmmakers to explore other avenues of supernatural and occult storytelling.
The result of this first departure from the murders of Michael Myers would likely end up being one of the most divisive, fan-enraging sequels of all time. And also, a bona fide cult classic.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a bizarre movie. Whereas the preceding two films had been fairly straight-forward, simple plots revolving around basic slasher tropes (with the exception of a twist in Part II that was pulled straight from a terrible daytime soap opera), Season of the Witch is remarkably convoluted on a conceptual level. The film was written by sci-fi screenwriter Nigel Kneale, who had written the 1953 Quatermass Experiment serial for the BBC, of which Carpenter was a fan. Kneale approached the story from a more heady, psychological position, opting for a horror story that was more intellectually scary than physically. Yet, when the studio pushed back (demanding more gore), Kneale left the project and the script was revised by director Tommy Lee Wallace before shooting began.
Naturally, Season of the Witch is about as different from the original Halloween as it could possibly be. Instead of a masked man stalking and murdering teenagers, the film is about Celtic black magic, Stonehenge, druids, and cursed Halloween masks.
Oh, and incredibly sophisticated androids. For some reason.
Our villain isn’t a silent, relentless killer. He’s a charming, charismatic, seemingly benign Irish businessman named Conal Cochran. While Michael’s motivations may have been mysterious, his goals were fairly straightforward: Kill people. That’s pretty much it. Cochran, on the other hand, has much more elaborate plans for the Halloween season. And the secret behind his machinations is what drives the plot.
I highly advise you to watch it if you already haven’t, because the rest of this piece contains mild spoilers. It’s bonkers, and you need to see it to believe it.
For those of you who don’t care about spoilers, here’s the short version of just exactly what the shady costume mogul is up to: First, Cochran steals Stonehenge. That’s right. Stonehenge. Steals the whole thing, and somehow smuggles it to America. How? No idea, and I’m pretty sure the movie doesn’t have a clue either. It’s ridiculous, and I absolutely love it.
With Stonehenge in his possession, Cochran has been shaving slivers of the monument off, piece by piece, and placing them inside special Halloween masks that have been selling like hotcakes to children all over the world. The shards are attached to microchips, which are triggered by a special commercial set to air on Halloween night. And what happens when the chip activates, you might be wondering? Well, it makes children’s heads melt and/or explode, and them emit a sludgy stream of snakes and insects that kill anyone else in the immediate area. Yep, Cochran’s plan hinges entirely on the mass murder of American children, for reasons that are only vaguely explained. Something to do with ancient Celtic traditions, and reviving the culture of his ancestors.
Naturally, as a successful businessman, Cochran has an army of paid henchmen and lackies at his disposal to ensure that the plan is foolproof at every step. Or, you know, a sane writer would assume, anyway. This is not the path that Season of the Witch chooses to pursue. No, on top of being a Celtic warlock, Cochran is also a Lex Luthor-style supergenius who employs an army of incredibly strong, humanoid androids to do his dirty work. What does this have to do with Samhain, the ancient druid Halloween festival? Absolutely nothing. Could these henchmen simply have been, I don’t know, regular people? Maybe under some sort of mind control? Yes, certainly. Would that have made more sense? Probably. But who cares! We get terminators in our movie about evil Irish Halloween masks, and if you don’t think that’s rad as hell, then you can politely excuse yourself.
The plot, on paper, is wacky and campy as all hell. But the presentation is so sincere and serious that you can’t help but to be legitimately engrossed in it, thanks to the effective direction and authentic acting. Our lead, a returning Carpenter favorite from The Fog, is Tom Adkins. Adkins plays Dan, an alcoholic, deadbeat doctor who kind of hates his ex-wife and seems to barely remember his kids exist. After dealing with the bizarre death of a man under his care, Dan meets the man’s daughter, Ellie, a woman half his age who immediately agrees to start an investigation with for reasons that I can’t quite fathom and that the movie basically just tells you to shut up and accept. Adkins is great, walking the narrow line between a hardboiled detective type from a noir film and a Spielberg protagonist with a dad bod. He’s determined and intelligent, but also realistically in over his head, spending most of the film either angry or confused (which lines up pretty well with the audience’s own experience). Ellie, played by character actress Stacey Nelkin, is tough-as-nails and sharp, with an endearing, underlying fragility. Both of these characters, far more dynamic and fleshed-out than any other Halloween protagonist that isn’t named Laurie Strode, help ground this otherwise surreal and dreamlike film in something more befitting of a mystery narrative than a straight-laced horror plot.
This is horror, though, no doubt about it. The gore can be relentless at times, and the violence towards children is surprising given the usual invincibility that the little bastards tend to have in mainstream horror films. The imagery and lore is deeply rooted in Halloween, much more so than the surface-level set dressings of the previous two films. Cochran is a villain who, much like Trick ‘r Treat’s mascot Sam, is obsessed with the historical precedent that gave way to the bastardized, modern version of the holiday, and his plan is deliberately steeped in iconography that’s evocative of classic Halloween imagery. The three masks that his company, Silver Shamrock, produce are that of a jack-o-lantern, a witch, and a skeleton. Why kids would flock to such cliché and limiting masks, especially when they clash with virtually any other costume, is beyond me, but then again Pet Rocks used to be a thing. so maybe kids are just dumb and impressionable.
Also, the Silver Shamrock jingle is positively infectious. It will be stuck in your head.
Despite Season of the Witch being a fun, moody, and utterly unique piece of Halloween (and Halloween) media, it was more or less universally despised upon release. And while many of the reviews at the time did cite specific issues with the film itself, it was largely the absence of Michael Myers that rubbed many the wrong way. Sure enough, the Kirk-faced killer would be back in Part 4, and the series would be the lesser for it. I think the anthology idea was strong, and Season of the Witch was a promising start to what could have been a holiday staple for years to come. Yet, audiences are notoriously fickle, and tend to react negatively to change. And so, instead of a series full of individual, inventive horror plots, we instead got Busta Rhymes karate kicking Michael Myers through a window.
But as with most things that are misunderstood in their time, Season of the Witch has gained a cult following in the years since its release, with critics and fans alike having been able to look past its lack of knife-wielding maniacs and see it for the gem that it truly is. Even the Halloween franchise itself has begun to look fondly on this, the black sheep of the family, with the Silver Shamrock masks being featured in the recent David Gordon Green Halloween films as fun nods to this overlooked and underrated entry.
Although it may be incredibly strange, Season of the Witch is one of the boldest, bravest, and most bizarre horror sequels ever made, and for that, I applaud it. I’d take this over Rob Zombie’s garbage any day.