Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, dir. Tommy Lee Wallace) follows Dr. Dan Challis (played by Tom Atkins), who investigates a mysterious plot involving a toy company owner named Conal Cochran (played by Dan O’Herlihy). Challis and his partner Ellie (played by Stacey Nelkin) discover that Cochran plans to use his popular Halloween masks to kill millions of children as a sacrifice on Halloween night. The two race against time to stop Cochran, but many children across the country are killed before they can stop the deadly plan. The film departed from the Halloween franchise, which previously focused on the characters Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, and because of this it received mixed (though mostly negative) reviews after premiering.
Despite this film having every iconic characteristic of being a cult classic John Carpenter production, its title sent it into the grave with audiences before most ever gave it a chance. However, if one looks into the history behind the Halloween franchise, they’ll find that the third installment of the series followed Carpenter’s original intentions. The story goes that Debra Hill and John Carpenter envisioned the Halloween franchise to function more as an annual anthology, each year inviting a new director to come and tell a story that takes place on Halloween night. Although no one accounted for the intense popularity Michael Myers would bring, leading the first two films in the franchise to be focused on the babysitter killer. After Hill and Carpenter reluctantly gave into a sequel, they were free to continue the franchise how they liked – and unfortunately, audiences were upset, angry, and confused.
Luckily, modern horror fans have begun to return to this installment of the Halloween franchise and view it for what it is – another beautifully gloomy and gruesome Carpenter production. In this review, I hope to establish some of the aspects that make this film worthy of being on any horror fan’s watchlist along with pointing out where the film’s narrative could be improved.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch begins in a manner similar to its predecessors Halloween and Halloween II, zoomed into artwork of a jack o' lantern appearing on a television/computer screen with the film's main theme playing. The recognizable style of Carpenter's music is present here with the repetitive keyboard dings which slowly grow in speed, high pitched bells and whistles, buzzing ambience – Carpenter’s whole catalog of irritating and paranoia driving noises. Like films such as The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994, dir. John Carpenter), Season of the Witch is a narrative driven film. In other words, there is not a lot of room for fluff and it remains focused on the story it came to tell. This isn’t to say the film has no fluff but it succeeds in providing the audience with more important scenes than it does non-sense. This is an aspect that I’ve found I came to respect the more times I return to it, especially as it feels that it’s easy for horror films to become overambitious in the narrative, wishing to accomplish many themes at once (or, overcompensate for not having enough). Within Season of the Witch I can only think of a single moment towards the finale where the narrative feels as if it’s at a lull.
Within the film’s final 10 minutes, Dr. Challis and Ellie finally escape Silver Shamrock and drive away as the factory burns down. As the two drive, Ellie’s face changes. First, she seems nervous and shifts around uncomfortably. Then, her stare becomes blank and emotionless shortly before attacking Dr. Challis face with her hands. From here the audience receives three different “gotcha” moments of a now robotic Ellie who keeps dying and coming back to kill her lover. Earlier in the film it’s established that many of Cochran’s henchmen are animatronic products he built, or androids. It’s unclear whether Ellie had always been an android working with Cochran, or if after getting kidnapped she was forced to become one. Either way, this scene drags on much longer than it needs to if it’s going to be there at all. This moment is hands down the most pointless and slow scene. Thankfully, this is not how the film ends. The real final scene is one of my favorite conclusions to a film I’ve ever seen. It’s depressing, it’s intense, it’s unresolved. It makes me wish more films had the balls to give their narratives unhappy endings where the hero loses.
Another defining feature this film has is its special effects department. In a time before CGI, horror movies had to be much more creative in how to make their blood and gore convincing. During this era of horror some went as far as Tobe Hooper and used parts of real corpses (human and animal), but I’ve found Carpenter’s films all share a similar and unique style of special effects – mostly through molds, casts, dummies, and some amazing realism painters on set. One of the best examples of this is when a minor character named Marge Guttmann (played by Garn Stephens) begins to pick at technological pieces found inside of a mask’s Silver Shamrock logo with a bobby pin. As she does a blue beam is shot into her mouth, slicing apart her lips and burning her eyes. As her muscles have their final dying spasms, the audience gets a close up of Marge’s face and the insect that crawls its way out of her mouth.
When it comes to films, I've always found myself passionate about the work behind the scenes, and a movie's special effects is consistently a make or break for me. I've always found the special effects used in Carpenter’s productions to be highly detailed and of high quality despite the low budget a good chunk of the earlier works had. Although with a budget of 2.3 million, Season of the Witch didn’t need to skimp out on the special effects used throughout. Even so, there’s a distinct artistic style to the casts used in Carpenter productions. Sick discolored flesh as the result of an attack; soaking wet wounds; incredibly realistic face molds of the actors yet there’s one or two features which are exaggerated or changed to give an uncanny taste.
While I could go on praising every detail I love about this horror classic, there is an elephant in the room which needs to be addressed and that is: How does this film have anything to do with witches?
It really has nothing to do with witches at all. The marketing, advertisements, and trailers for this film would lead someone to believe Season of the Witch really does focus on witches, but I am not convinced. The only reference towards witches or witchcraft this film provides is evil Cochran’s monologue about why he’s doing this to children. From this monologue the audience only gets a vague idea of how any of the narrative relates to witchcraft, insinuating that Cochran is a 3,000 year old ancient witch from Ireland who is planning a mass sacrifice of children because of the planets’ alignments. I personally believe that this is not enough to market one’s film as being about witches as it’s the only moment witchcraft ever becomes relevant to the plot. Also, we never get to see the witchcraft taking place – Cochran just tells the audience he’s a witch and it relates to the narrative in no other manner. Evidence of how the masks work throughout the film is directly related to the use of technology and computers – not witchcraft. Overall, I believe if the writer had changed nothing about the film except Cochran’s reason for conspiring mass murder it would only benefit the narrative. For example, perhaps Cochran’s motives could be more rooted within sci-fi horror themes since there’s already a large emphasis on technology throughout – everything from the Silver Shamrock commercials to the masks themselves.
I give Halloween III: Season of the Witch 4 out of 5 coffins.
Over the years it’s become a staple in my horror recommendations to others, and many who do finally buckle down to watch it are pleasantly surprised. I believe this movie only gets a bad reputation because of its association with the Halloween franchise. If this film had been titled anything other than Halloween III I believe it would have performed as well as any other Carpenter-Hill production. Also as much as I love Michael Myers as the next mall goth, it does make me incredibly sad that Carpenter and Hill’s original vision for the Halloween franchise was discarded for more Michael vs. His Entire Family. I think there could have been a lot of impressive and creative potential by having a horror franchise that returns every year with a new story and new director and I think Season of the Witch showcases the potential Halloween could have been.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is not currently free on any streaming platforms, however it sometimes shows up on Amazon Prime Video and is available for rent through Amazon and YouTube starting at $3.99.