Friday, October 28, 2022

The Night No One Comes Home: Halloween III: Season of the Witch at 40

For those who were around in 1982, the current reception to Halloween Ends carries an amusing sense of deja vu. The only difference is that Season of the Witch was way more hated in '82 and it stayed that way for years. Somewhere along the line, though, it became fashionable to like, even love, the sci-fi flavored shenanigans of Season of the Witch and forty years later, we're long past anyone questioning its cult classic status. Time is typically kind to genre films in general but given Halloween III's starting point, you have to say that it's been especially kind to this one. In retrospect, though, its redemption should have been easy to predict. With the Silver Shamrock jingle drilling its way into viewers minds, chances were good that eventually people would just relent and give in. Even if it might prove to take some time. 

I can't say exactly how long it took Season of the Witch to really begin winning fans over (sometime in the '90s is when I felt the tide really starting to turn) but I do know that when it was first released on October 22nd, 1982, audiences were not having it. If anyone says they liked this movie from day one, they're lying. Personally, I have never once, even after it became cool to like Season of the Witch, ever heard anyone claim that, oh, I was on board with it from the start. It was so hated, no one even dares trying to lie about being on Team Halloween III all along. Whatever ambitions writer and director Tommy Lee Wallace and producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill may have had for this big shakeup of the Halloween franchise, audiences told them to stuff it. No one was having any anthology bullshit in their Halloween movies. 

It's Michael Myers or bust. 

As much as we might wonder why fans at the time weren't buying this shift in the series, it also seems fair to ask how anyone involved in Halloween III actually thought they would. Who thought people would be happy about this? I mean, come on. They had to know that people might be fucking pissed. It's crazy to me that anyone was shocked at the reception this got. This was a movie that was always going to take some getting used to. And honestly, if this had somehow really killed the franchise and Michael Myers had never come back, I guarantee people would still hate it. 

As we all know, in the lead here as Dr. Dan Challis is Carpenter regular and all-around genre movie favorite Tom Atkins. Challis is a middle-aged medic who, while on the job, witnesses the grisly demise of a store owner who came into the hospital during Challis' shift clutching a Halloween mask like grim death. After the man is murdered in his hospital bed by a strange assassin who immolates himself in the hospital parking lot afterwards, Challis sets out on a trail that leads him to discover an outrageous (some might call it completely harebrained) plot by Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), the world's leading mask maker, to kill as many people (mostly children) as possible on Halloween night by sending a signal through the TV ads for his line of Silver Shamrock masks. 

This signal will activate electronic chips embedded in the masks to cause the heads of every kid wearing them to burst open in an unholy eruption of beetles, snakes, and assorted other creepy-crawlies (courtesy of makeup FX legend Tom Burman, whose studio produced some of the most memorable FX of the '80s, with this, Cat People, The Beast Within and others). 

Thanks to all this ghoulish glory, Halloween as a holiday will be rightfully returned to its dark pagan roots, something that Cochran seems to care way too much about. Honestly, I'm not sure what his end game was. What was he getting out of this, exactly? I don't know. He doesn't seem to have any great explanation to offer Challis. The best he can muster is something about the planets being in alignment. I'm genuinely curious as to what Cochran's post Halloween plans were. Even if the crap he planned had gone off without a hitch, how would every law enforcement agent in the country not be on Cochran's doorstep on November 1st? No matter what kind of crazy shit he might have unleashed on Halloween, it wouldn't have meant that the entire country collapsed and we no longer had laws. Was his defense when he got dragged to jail going to be "I do love a good joke!" Thanks to Dan Challis blundering through Cochran's factory like a bull in a china shop, we'll never know. 

When you're a rich evil mastermind and you've got an elaborate sinister plan with a lot of moving parts to it (too many, I say, in this case), you probably expect that plan will be in peril at some point. Someone on the side of law and order might catch on to what you're doing and try and put a stop to it. But if you're a rich evil mastermind, you also probably believe that opposition will come in the form of a James Bond type, some slick secret agent. I mean, in Cochran's case he's got a set-up that Blofeld would envy. It may not be a criminal empire per se but he is up to criminal shit (he stole one of the stones from Stonehenge!), he owns a whole town, he has an army of robots at his disposal, and he's so rich he thinks nothing of blowing his money on a frankly cockamamie scheme that seems to have no actual purpose other than being wicked for its own sake. If that doesn't merit a worthy adversary that he can gloat about his diabolical plans to, what does? 

Yep, if you're Conal Cochran, you're expecting the very best to be coming for you. What he gets, however, is divorced doc Dan Challis. Yeah, we're not talking Batman vs. The Joker here. Challis is no grim avenger. Most afternoons you can find this guy on a bar stool. All love to Tom Atkins but in another time, Kevin James could have played this same part with no discernible difference. 

Before he even hits the road to Silver Shamrock's base of operations in Santa Mira along with Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the young daughter of the slain shop owner, Challis makes sure to bring a six pack. Once he and Ellie arrive in Santa Mira, while she wants to immediately start looking for clues about what happened to her dad, Challis' response is for them to slow their roll. As he says, "It's getting late and I could use a drink!" As soon as these two would-be sleuths catch on to the fact that something sketchy is up in sleepy Santa Mira (the sketchiest thing in Santa Mira is Challis and Ellie passing themselves off as husband and wife but whatever), Challis' immediate question to Ellie isn't what the next step of their investigation should be but to ask "You wanna leave?" This guy is no hero. I'm not even sure if you could even fairly call him an anti-hero. That seems like a stretch too. To be fair, he does fuck up Cochran's plans to a point, and he definitely fucks Cochran himself up, but he is just not cut out for this stuff. The only real success Challis has in Season of the Witch is getting Ellie into bed. It's not anything he should be proud of but, by God, he does it.

While Dan and Ellie are busy going at it, in the next motel room over a woman inadvertently causes a Silver Shamrock chip to fatally misfire and blast her face off. Ellie immediately reacts to the sudden sound on the other side of the wall but the best Challis can do when Ellie asks "What was that?" is to mumble "Who cares?" It's really not so hard to believe that this guy wasn't able to save the day. 

Like Challis himself, though, Season of the Witch is the very definition of a lovable loser. It didn't turn into a better movie over the years, fans just came around to appreciating its quirks, something that I think became much easier once they realized that Michael Myers wouldn't be going away again. In 1982, Season of the Witch felt like a prank at the expense of Halloween fans but forty years later it's seen by many as the pride of the pumpkin patch.

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