Tuesday, October 26, 2010
FOUR MORE DAYS TO HALLOWEEN...
Since it's Halloween, I want to take this opportunity to give proper respect to the
most underrated and misunderstood movie in the original Halloween franchise.
I refer to director/writer Tommy Lee Wallace's "Halloween III: Season Of The Witch," a movie usually dismissed by fans and critics alike. Yes, Michael Myers isn't in it. Yes, it has nothing to do with the rest of the films in the franchise except that the story takes place at Halloween. It also has more surprises in it than any other film in the franchise except for the first one, and is an infinitely more original and better-executed film than any of the subsequent sequels except for "Halloween H20."
The story concerns ER Doctor Dan Challis (ruggedly sexy Daddy Tom Atkins) whose patient, a shop owner, is murdered in the hospital by an impossibly strong male assassin in a suit who pulls his skull apart by hand. The murderer then promptly sets himself and his car on fire in the hospital parking lot. The doc agrees to help the victim's distraught daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) track down the truth behind her father's bizarre death. Their search takes them to the small town of Santa Mira, which turns out to be the ultimate company town -- everyone there works for the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask company, the streets roll up at curfew, surveillance cameras are everywhere, and within the town's limits it's impossible to communicate with the outside world.
OK, here come the spoilers, because one can't discuss this film without revealing its central concept -- the Silver Shamrock company is actually a front for a Druidic cult headed by the charismatic factory owner and mechanical genius Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), who plans to pull off a mass sacrifice of children to his old gods on Samhain (the original Celtic name for Halloween). During the big Silver Shamrock giveaway on Halloween night, when thousands of kids are glued to their TV sets watching a contest commercial in their Halloween masks, the factory will transmit a signal that will activate -- maybe DETONATE might be a better word -- a mysterious electronic disc hidden in each mask, and a ghastly supernatural phenomenon will occur. (The film's scariest scene -- which is also darkly funny -- shows Cochran demonstrating this device on an obnoxious salesman's family visiting the factory, while he and his "guests" watch on a monitor.) The factory's operations center contains an actual standing stone from Stonehenge amid all the futuristic computers and control panels, and Cochran's suit-wearing security goons are actually androids.
The ultimate irony is that the cutesy song that plays during the killer commercial ("four more days to Halloween...") goes to the tune of London Bridge, and is sung by a chorus of chipmunk-like voices. The jingle is used to build tension at intervals throughout the film, and if it doesn't set your teeth on edge, nothing ever will.
Dr. Dan and Ellie brave various dangers while figuring this out, and finally Dr. Dan has to try to stop Cochran's plot single-handedly. Just to make things more suspenseful, his own kids, in the custody of his hostile ex-wife, are among those in danger.
I can't understand why so many people missed the ingeniousness of this story, or failed to be grabbed by the performances of the cast. O'Herlihy is particularly eerie as Cochran -- he waxes eloquent about his plan to bring back his "old world" at one point in a monologue that still raises goose bumps every time I hear it. Atkins makes a ballsy frustrated protagonist who nobody will believe (he's a Pittsburgh PA native, and usually a character actor in such other flicks as "The Fog" -- it's great to see him in the lead here. And not only that -- we even get to see him shirtless!)
Tom Atkins in "Halloween III: Season of The Witch"
The movie is an evocative mixture of the ancient and futuristic, science fiction and the supernatural. It was John Carpenter and Debra Hill's attempt to turn the Halloween series into an anthology, with a different horror story every Halloween. Perhaps it would have been more successful if it weren't labeled a Halloween film. If it had just been called "Season Of The Witch," folks might have judged it on its own merits as a film, instead of fixating on insisting that it ought to be something it wasn't.