VHS Revival explores the peculiar charm of Tommy Lee Wallace’s franchise anomaly
For the most part, Halloween III: Season of the Witch plays out like an episodic horror series, and often to its credit, but before we get to that let us take a look at how this franchise anomaly came to pass.
It was no courageous act for producers to take the series in another direction in an era when a trilogy of movies was rarely planned from the outset. Myers had put in a decent effort in Halloween II the year prior, the continuation of events from that first Halloween both welcome and plausible, even if it couldn’t hold a butcher’s knife to John Carpenter’s superlative original. Essentially, the movie tried to outdo the ever bloodier slasher movies of the early 1980s by transforming Michael Myers from a character shrouded in mystique into a seek and destroy barbarian in the Jason Voorhees mode. By 1982, a third movie featuring Myers was pushing it a little at a time when people were more likely to take a stand against an endlessly regurgitated product. After all, this wasn’t Star Wars we were talking about. A Michael Myers toy range was pretty much out of the question.
Knowing that the Halloween title still had legs as a holiday vehicle, the plan was to release a new film every year under the guise of the original franchise. Each movie would have a new story and cast of characters, allowing Carpenter’s iconic killer to honourably slip into obscurity. Almost four decades later, we know that things would turn out rather differently, but movie producers could learn a lot from Season of the Witch at a time when reboots have begun to wear just a little thin, at least in the creative department. Instead of another Rob Zombie abomination, perhaps it would be an idea to recycle this short-lived, franchise-spinning concept.
Easy for me to say, but money talks and evil walks, and it is much more cost-effective to slap a white mask on a poster and try and fool everyone into believing that what we have on our hands is something fresh and worthwhile. Whether it’s a soon-to-be-evil niece, Druid-like cults or reality TV massacres, the corporate think tank is never short on lousy ideas when it comes to resuscitating our long-beleaguered villain, and even after legacy-crushing reboots and the reemergence of Carpenter as executive producer on the latest incarnation (fingers crossed) the shelf life of the ‘shape’-led franchise is in all likelihood without expiration.
Halloween II was perhaps the closest Carpenter and co came to rediscovering the magic of the original Halloween. The director never wanted a sequel to his genre-defining original, but with the slasher market exploding and Universal banging at his door, it was only a matter of time before he and collaborator Debra Hill caved to the commercial demands of what was a veritable goldmine. Demoting himself to producer, screenwriter and composer, Carpenter would recruit first-time director Rick Rosenthal, and with legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey back on board they were able to recreate the inimitable Myers aura as well as could be hoped for, but a sequel that acted as a direct extension of the original narrative came with its own set of problems.
Carpenter would up the gore in an attempt to meet the marketing demands of a generation who were out for blood, but on the whole was able to do this without seriously jeopardising the Myers ethos. The problems instead lay with that old chestnut repetition, a perquisite for any sequel attempting to recapture that same old magic. The problem was, the inimitable ‘Shape’ was a creation who thrived on less is more, and a further 90 minutes of exposure only served to sully his mystique. Add to this a cast of respected characters who would suffer from having to repeat the same old mistakes and what we were left with was a well-made genre movie that, in its heart of hearts, just wasn’t all that necessary. It was with this in mind that Carpenter killed of his most famous monster, and, as far as we could tell, his thespian-tongued nemesis, Dr. Samuel Loomis. When Universal inevitably came calling for yet another Haddonfield outing, Carpenter was more than willing to take the financial bait, but it was Season of the Witch that was ultimately pitched to them, an idea that promised to fulfil their financial aspirations for many years to come.
Conal Cochran – Trade Secrets!
So how did the Halloween franchise fare with the omission of Michael Myers? Fairly well, as it happens. It didn’t make as much as the prior instalment, but it would match 1988‘s Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, each movie recouping around $12,000,000 in profit. This probably says more about ambiguity than it does about the draw of Haddonfield’s most hideous resident. When you look at the cryptic cover art for the second Halloween sequel, you see that its clearest features are the familiar Halloween titles, along with a derivative tagline which proclaims, ‘The night no one came home.’ Whether Michael was to be involved or not, his legacy would be utilised efficaciously.
Season of the Witch drops the standard stalk-and-slash formula for a heady blend of spiritual paganism and dystopian sci-fi, delivering a terrestrial TV plot of deadly Halloween masks, bloodless androids and microchips which are somehow made magical using particles from Stonehenge, a twenty-five tonne world wonder that maniacal antagonist Conal Cochran is somehow able to smuggle across the Atlantic Ocean and put into storage at the Silver Shamrock warehouse in Santa Mira.
Cochran is one of the richest men in America, a faux-benevolent entrepreneur who made his fortune selling crappy halloween merchandise, and that’s not the only irregularity surrounding a man who receives nothing but praise from townsfolk kept under surveillance day and night. Santa Mira is a barren, strangely unassuming place with a 6 pm curfew that is something akin to Michael Crichton’s Westworld, only the cowboys wear suits, keeping tabs on anyone who may prove hazardous to their boss’s duplicitous operation.
Instead of one Michael Myers, Cochran has created an entire army of them. Seemingly innocuous and largely undetected, they are just as relentless and inevitable, omniscient monsters who effortlessly consume the town and everyone who happens to stumble upon it. They are also devastatingly brutal, amoral enough to drive power drills through the skulls of helpless female nurses and powerful enough to twist peoples’ heads clean off their shoulders.
Betty Kupfer – Honey, don’t get too close. You’ll ruin your eyes.
While Cochran’s army provide the movie’s physical threat, it is the mogul himself who provides the personality. Played with deft understatement by the wonderful Dan O’Herlihy, Cochran is delightfully sinister, every sordid reveal delivered with the frankness of a learned headmaster conveying evil titbits to a class of impressionable youngsters. Commercials for his latest range of Silver Shamrock masks air ceaselessly across the entire nation, the ‘8 more days ’til Halloween’ jingle as perversely infectious as ’99 bottles of beer on the wall’, an insidious nursery rhyme which pollutes the minds of children faster than a hit single from a corporate boy band.
On the subject of music, the movie’s non-diegetic variety, composed by Carpenter himself, proves the film’s driving force. Similar to the Halloween theme in terms of pace and its ability to establish and maintain tension, in many ways it is classic Carpenter, but there is a richness and variety owing to further experimentation, resulting in a delightfully bleak dystopian nightmare which gives the movie a unique urgency. Carpenter and long-time collaborator Alan Howarth may have produced more memorable and recognisable themes, but as a standalone piece, their score for Season of the Witch is arguably their most accomplished.
Genre mainstay Tom Atkins is effortlessly cool as an overworked doctor who struggles to spend time with his kids, and who stumbles upon Cochran’s implausible plot to turn America’s youth into steaming piles of insects (apparently microchips can do that when exposed to Stonehenge particles and a television set). Atkins has that hard-boiled facade he portrays so well, but he is also strangely fallible, a man plunged into an odyssey that blurs the lines between his home life and ill-fated infidelities. In the end, it is another race against time to save the world from an unseen threat, but the movie is less about the content, more about its mood and inimitable aura.
Aesthetically, the film is a downbeat joy. On the one hand it is deliriously schlocky, with two-bit characterisation and the kind of plot that could sink a ship of incredulity, but its grainy visuals and static pacing brood with a quiet menace, as the inevitable breeze of Cochran’s diabolical master plan draws you in like a filthy tide. With Cundey once again back on board, there is something distinctly ominous about proceedings, a grimy ambience that seems coldly detached from its pulp aspirations. There’s something off about it, and you can feel it in your very bones.
Season of the Witch is not a great movie, not by any means, and although much of the action is textbook fare, there are many elements that make it unique beyond its anomalous place in a slasher franchise, and in terms of being interesting it is arguably the second best movie in the entire series. Sure, some things are better left unexplained: why does Cochran have a penchant for prepubescent genocide? What happens when the government put two and two together and send in the army? Does Cochran have some kind of equally elaborate contingency plan for when the world’s parents rally together and track down the psychotic toy manufacturer?
This is all very made-for-TV, but so what? The events on show may be largely predictable, but some of its standalone elements are a distinctive delight, and behind this peculiar blend of genre is the kind of mood-defining soundtrack that exudes cinematic elegance. You could close your eyes and still become enraptured by this one.