Monday, July 21, 2014


By Phil Nobile Jr

John Carpenter wanted Michael Myers dead.

That amazing final moment from 1978’s HALLOWEEN — the one where The Shape has vanished from the spot where he’d surely been shot dead seconds earlier — helped cement the film as a genre staple, the new slasher gold standard for which countless wannabe franchises (and a handful of actual franchises) strived. HALLOWEEN made a bundle, and was for 20 years the most profitable independent film of all time.

As a result, by 1981, the low-budget film industry was lousy with filmmakers planting flags (and pitchforks and machetes) on every holiday on the calendar, lining up for some of that easy slasher money.

Somewhat to his dismay, John Carpenter discovered he was one of them. That famous last shot had come around to bite him in the ass; if Michael Myers wasn’t dead, surely there was a sequel to be hammered out to keep that gravy train rolling? That was the thinking of the money men, at any rate, and Carpenter, much like his crazed Dr. Loomis, must have felt a measure of responsibility for unleashing Michael Myers on the world. So Carpenter, while a firm “no” on directing, returned to finish off his monster with his typewriter. (And if he made a few bucks off the franchise in the process, well, no one was more entitled to such than him.) As Carpenter himself tells it, each night he, fueled by a six-pack of beer, would hammer out the draft for HALLOWEEN II.

It’s not hard to look at HALLOWEEN II and realize the film’s one mission seems to be to destroy the original’s mysterious killer. It’s certainly true in a thematic sense: the unknowable, unstoppable killer (who, remember, was simply called “The Shape” in the first film’s script), is given a sibling, a bit of pagan backstory/motivation, and is referred to by his first name over and over again. Rob Zombie takes a lot of heat for fleshing out Michael Myers too much in his 2007 remake, but let’s assign blame where it’s due; the rot of demystification takes root the second HALLOWEEN II starts. “Kill The Shape” is also a more literal mandate here, as Carpenter sees to it that his creation is shot in both eyes before being set on fire. THE END, the filmmaker seemed to be saying. You can practically envision Carpenter gleefully patting down the dirt on Michael’s grave with a shovel. Slashers had recovered from lesser injuries, and would of course go on to recover from worse, but watching Michael Myers’ head melt through his mask while The Chordettes chirp “Mr. Sandman” on the soundtrack, things felt pretty final.

Which, of course, created a unique opportunity for Carpenter and producing partner Debra Hill when Universal came calling in 1982, asking for a third Halloween. With Myers a charred puddle of goo and filmmakers still somewhat beholden to the laws of physics, a third killing spree for the Shape was apparently out of the question. So what happened next was one of the ballsier, more admirable, and most ill-fated moves of the genre. HALLOWEEN isn’t about a single killer, the team suggested to the studio. It’s a BRAND NAME. We’ll do a new HALLOWEEN every year. Each story will be a standalone tale, and you can keep the franchise going indefinitely. The first new story of the anthology will delve into the origins of Halloween itself, and will meld ancient pagan sacrifice with the modern consumer age! People will forget all about Michael Myers!

What optimism in this pitch! Think about the leap of faith, the boundless credit given to the public here - the adorably naive belief that horror audiences would rather see a new story under the brand name than sequel after boring sequel of teenagers being stabbed to death.

Sadly, they were 100% wrong.

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH feels like a significant moment in horror history, and for a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s pure fork-in-the-road, “what if” territory; had the filmmakers’ anthology approach worked, there’s every reason to think the ensuing 30 years of horror would look very, very different. The other angle is more personal, and it involves the tough lesson learned by three young mavericks (Carpenter, Hill, and director Tommy Lee Wallace), emboldened by a bit of mainstream success, who thought they were going to use the system to do something original and different. It feels like such an ambitious, naive gesture that fans are inclined to be on board with it, no matter the actual film’s shortcomings.

To be fair, the film gets a lot right. Dean Cundey’s cinematography and Carpenter’s score (co-written by Alan Howarth) effectively maintain the ongoing HALLOWEEN “brand,” as does the cast, containing a handful of faces from Carpenter’s repertory company. (You can even hear Jamie Lee Curtis as the voice of the telephone operator.) The film uses Halloween as a backdrop much more effectively than Carpenter’s film, where the holiday was more of an excuse to have a masked killer wandering town unnoticed. Here, kids pester their parents for cool masks in the days leading up to Halloween; incessant TV commercials count down the hours to the holiday; and in one nicely shot montage, children all over the country canvas their respective neighborhoods as the sun goes down.  We wouldn’t see Halloween so lovingly rendered on film again until 2007’s TRICK ‘R TREAT.

The plot, derived from an early script conceived by British science-fiction writer Nigel Kneale, concerns nothing less than the fate of the world — we’ve traded in a lone maniac for one who heads a corporation, and his plan involves sacrificing all the children of the world using old-fashioned magic combined with the latest in 1983 telecommunications. Throughout is that same love of film history so palpable in all of Carpenter’s films. With a half-crocked protagonist (Tom Atkins) at the wheel, HALLOWEEN III sort of drunk-drives back through time, scraping against the paranoid thrillers of the 70s, bumping into 1973’s THE WICKER MAN, and eventually ditching straight into Don Siegel’s 1956 masterpiece, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (the film is set in Santa Mira, the same fictional locale as Siegel’s film.) Atkins is a constant joy as a protagonist over his head and out of patience, and Dan O’Herlihy as Conal Cochran, channeling equal parts Boris Karloff from THE BLACK CAT and Edmund Gwenn from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, makes for a memorable villain.

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All of this to say HALLOWEEN III has some legitimate pleasures. Script tinkering and producer meddling (courtesy Dino De Laurentiis) is revealed through some hard tonal shifts, but the film maintains a plucky enthusiasm, and for an ‘80s studio effort, it’s got a mean streak that’s to be admired. (You don’t often find corporate product in which a little boys head is turned into a swarm of bugs and snakes.) Combined with its weird pedigree, this all makes the movie something of a singular experience. But one also can’t help but experience HALLOWEEN III through that “what if” context, and when we watch it we’re imagining that alternate world where HALLOWEEN III worked, and 1983 saw the release of HALLOWEEN IV, a film that had all the earmarks of the series — that Cundey lighting, that Carpenter/Howarth score, that repertory company — but was yet another standalone tale. We watch HALLOWEEN III and imagine a decade in which “John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN” meant an all-new, annual experience. When we watch and love HALLOWEEN III, we’re loving a franchise that never really existed, and that’s part of the appeal.

Timing is everything. In 1982, the idea of a horror anthology was certainly in the air, as evidenced by the release (and success) of George A. Romero’s CREEPSHOW. The following year would see four of Carpenter’s peers collaborating on TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (one of those peers, Joe Dante, was originally slated to helm HALLOWEEN III.) Before the decade was over, both TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE and TALES FROM THE CRYPT would be on the small screen, proving that there was in fact a market for horror anthologies. Many folks have pointed to these examples as proof that HALLOWEEN III was ahead of its time. But in reality the film was, in fact, a year too late. It’s not that people weren’t ready for an anthology; it’s that HALLOWEEN II gummed up the works, fixing in audiences’ minds the idea that the franchise was about Michael Myers, no matter what kind of shape he was left in at the end. Had Wallace’s SEASON OF THE WITCH  been the second Halloween film, audiences would have no doubt been more open to the idea of an anthology series, and we could very well be celebrating a very different franchise today.

PHIL NOBILE JR is a writer/director of non-fiction television projects, including the feature-length A&E documentary HALLOWEEN: THE INSIDE STORY (2010.) He is a contributing writer for and its sister print publication, BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH.

1 comment:

Mark Gillman said...

Great one! I just watched this movie for the first time last month, and I was surprised at how much I loved it. As much as I liked Tom Atkins, I think I liked the villain, Mr Cochrane, most of all. As campy as this was, I think this one is actually more frightening than the others. Just the idea of thousands or hundreds of thousands of excited children dying worldwide in a few seconds is very terrifying. To make it worse, Mr Cochrane passes it off simply as, "I do love a good trick." I really love this movie, and it's much better than half of the MM sequels.

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