HALLOWEEN III's Road To Redemption

Making a case for the slasher's dorky little brother.

By Keith Phipps · @kphipps3000 · February 10, 2021, 12:22 PM EST
(Photo credit: Samuel Zimmerman)

Released just in time for Halloween in 1981, Halloween II picked up moments after the conclusion of the original film with a story that found protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) discovering an unexpected connection to Michael Myers as a lot of bystanders died violent deaths in a poorly lighted hospital. It made a lot of money, so naturally the world wanted Halloween III. But producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill didn’t want to give it to them, at least not in the form anyone expected. Neither did Tommy Lee Wallace, a longtime Carpenter/Hill collaborator who’d eventually agree to direct the film that would come to be known as Halloween III: Season of the Witch. In fact, Wallace had turned down the chance to helm Halloween II, not wanting to repeat what had already been done. But Halloween III, Hill and Carpenter assured him, would be different. And it was different, so different that the public rejected it, giving it the reputation as the “other” Halloween film, the one without Michael Myers or any of the other elements of the series, the one it might be best to avoid altogether. Eventually, however, fans came around, elevating the film to the status of a cult classic.

How did this happen? It’s tough to pin down exactly when the tide turned on Halloween III’s reputation, but not hard to conclude why a Halloween film — even a horror film specifically about Halloween released shortly before Halloween in 1982 — didn’t connect with audiences expecting something different at the time.

They had been warned. Speaking to FANGORIA’s Ellen Carlomagno ahead of the film’s release, Hill said, “This is a ‘pod' movie, not a ‘knife’ movie,” a reference to a plot more inspired by Invasion of the Body Snatchers than, well, Halloween. (The film’s primary setting of Santa Mira, California, is just one nod to the 1956 Don Siegel classic.) In the same piece, Wallace laid out a plan for the future, saying, “By using this title it is our intention to create an anthology out of the series, sort of along the lines of Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone.” And so, the Halloween franchise would transform from being films about a guy in a William Shatner mask terrorizing small-town Illinois to films about anything Halloween-related. Fans would never know what they were going to get.

That may sound like madness now, in the midst of a franchise-drive film culture where recognizable brands gives viewers more of the same each time out. But in 1982, it wasn’t the craziest idea. For starters, it looked like horror anthology films of the omnibus variety were undergoing a resurgence. Creepshow, a hit, would follow Halloween III just a month later and the high-profile Twilight Zone: The Movie loomed on the horizon for the following summer; the on-set accident that would mar its release remained in the future while Halloween III was in the planning stages. Also, horror in general seemed to be entering a time of transition. The flood of slasher films inspired by Halloween had started to peter out, making the prospect of yet another “knife movie” not as sure a bit in 1982 as it was in 1981. Why not try something different?

And so, a pod movie, which made as much sense as any other sort of horror movie in 1982. In a year that saw audiences reject Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, who knew what worked anymore? To script it, the team turned to Nigel Kneale, the prolific British TV and film writer who created the character of Bernard Quatermass, a scientist featured in TV series and films who had a habit of stumbling upon cosmic mysteries. In his most famous adventure, Quatermass and the Pit (filmed as both a TV serial and a 1967 feature film), Quatermass uncovers an ancient artifact with disturbing implications about the origins of humanity and the forces shaping our character.

Linking the celebration of Halloween with ancient Celtic rites, Halloween III revives some of that story’s fundamental pessimism about who we are and where we come from and ties it to an anti-consumerist riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers involving robots and killer Halloween masks. It’s a weird movie, one unlike anything else in theaters at the time, and one Kneale wouldn’t claim as his own. Producer Dino De Laurentiis’ instruction to add more gore led Kneale to take his name off the project. That left Wallace as the credited screenwriter, a move Wallace would years later call, “Just about the most inaccurate credit you could ever conceive of.”

And though the run-up to the film’s release cautioned viewers not to expect what they’d seen before — down to a tagline reading “The Night No One Comes Home” that nods to the tagline of the original film — it still baffled moviegoers and critics. It baffled no one, however, as much as Roger Ebert, whose review confused the android killer who sets himself on fire in the opening scene with Myers then wonders why “a lab technician who spends the whole movie sifting through his ashes.” Other reviews suggested a weariness with the abundance of early ’80s horror in general. In the Boston Globe, John Engstrom called it “soporific” and ended his review with descriptions of its most violent moments before concluding “enough is enough.” More tellingly, Pittsburgh Press critic Ed Blank described attending a screening in which paying audiences “Bronx-cheered the last reel right off the screen.” Even those who paid to see it weren’t buying it. Though Halloween III almost beat First Blood during both films’ opening weekends, earning $6.3 million to John Rambo’s $6.6, it plummeted quickly, finishing the year as 1982’s 53rd most popular film, a couple of slots below Grease 2.

It retrospect, this probably shouldn’t be a surprise. “Audiences wanted Michael Myers with a knife,” film critic Amy Nicholson, who co-hosts the ongoing podcast Unspooled and hosted the podcast miniseries Halloween Unmasked, which explored the history of the franchise. “They wanted the franchise to obey the Jason Voorhees template instead of spiraling out and stretching the genre — a failure of imagination which would feel more and more short-sighted as the ’80s trudged into the ’90s and horror became factory-stamped and formulaic.”

Nicholson’s thoughts echo that of Brian Collins, who’s written about horror movies for years at his site Horror Movie A Day and at Birth.Movies.Death. Collins suggests that the passage of time, and the accumulation of unsatisfying films that did feature Myers has helped cast Halloween III in a different light. “I think the Dimension-era entries helped it start shining a little brighter,” Collins says. “It’s kind of hard to pull the ‘No Michael Myers, so it sucks’ defense when Myers was accounted for in dreck like Halloween: Resurrection and Rob Zombie's first remake, so clearly you needed more than a guy in a Shatner mask to make these things worthy. And as the Myers/Laurie Strode driven movies got harder to follow, with cults controlling Myers and entries being dropped from the canon at random, I think people started to appreciate the ‘one and done’ nature of Halloween III. So over time it turned from ‘No Myers? Boo!’ to ‘No Myers? Great!’”

Collins also witnessed the film’s reputation turn around firsthand, hosting a panel for the film in 2008 for a convention held on the occasion of the first film’s 30th anniversary and moderating a Q&A with Wallace at an enthusiastic 2010 screening at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Theater that Wallace described as leaving him “flabbergasted,” in an interview included on the Scream Factory DVD and Blu-ray of the film, adding, “That was the first inkling I had that anyone cared.”

Halloween III has been the subject of a widespread reassessment. But what about those who loved the film from the start? Sam Zimmerman, curator of the streaming service Shudder (and the possessor of a Halloween III-inspired tattoo) recalls being given a VHS set featuring the first three Halloween films at the age of 10 in 1998. “I loved the first two movies,” he says, “but was immediately, instinctually kind of drawn to Halloween III. I could suss out it being ‘off’ or ‘weird,’ but at the time and at my age — and without many folks around me who loved or were knowledgeable about horror — I had no explanation why. And I really, really loved it. The film had so much I had never seen before, but would later cultivate into vibes I really got: the odd blend of folk horror, black magic and sci-fi (my favorite John Carpenter movie has ended up being Prince of Darkness), the defining sequences of the young boy’s head caving to insects and the further skull trauma throughout, even its odd meta inclusion of an advertisement for the first Halloween film airing on TV. I really just had to figure out what this thing was and knew that, whatever that may be, I really responded to it.”

Zimmerman gets to the core of the film’s appeal. What made it off-putting for so many in 1982 — and still off-putting to some — makes it beguiling to others. Instead of Jamie Lee Curtis, Wallace’s film offers middle-aged character actor Tom Atkins in a rare leading role as Dan Challis, a beer-swilling doctor who heads off on a whim (and on a weekend he was supposed to look after his kids, no less) to help a questionably legal young woman named Ellie (Stacey Nelkin). Ellie’s looking for her father, a toy store owner who’s disappeared after uncovering a horrible secret at Silver Shamrock Novelties. Instead of Myers, we get Shamrock Novelties owner Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), a man of Irish descent who pines for the old ways. The really old ways, the ones involving the blood sacrifice of children in pagan rituals. Hence his new line of Silver Shamrock Halloween masks, equipped with a kid-killing microchip that uses witchcraft and technology to turn their brains into bugs and snakes. (Also involved: a stolen Stonehenge stone.) And instead of scenes of Myers stalking his prey through leaf-strewn streets and shadowy corridors to the familiar Halloween theme, we get robots, lasers, Celtic lore, and the incessant, earworm-y Silver Shamrock jingle (“Three more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…”), which doubles as a countdown to an apocalyptic finale.

It’s at once, Zimmerman’s words, “sinister and kooky,” a mix that will never sit right with some horror fans. But for others, and for a number that seems to grow each year, Halloween III’s oddness deepens its appeal. “I’ve really only grown more fond of the movie and what it’s up to as an odd, bleak, weirdo nightmare,” Zimmerman says. “As I grew and engaged more with the genre, I took real notice of how people dismissed Halloween III, and subsequently credit the film with helping me be confident in my tastes and my impressions.”

It’s also, Nicholson argues, in the nature of horror fans to embrace the offbeat and maligned. “Loving Halloween III — despite, or perhaps, because of, its flaws is almost a marker of sensitivity,” she says. “You’re not just into horror for the gore — you're into it for its charm and playfulness. Also, to love horror at all — to champion horror movies as voices that deserve to be heard — shares the same personality trait of people who stick up for the awkward dweeb. And there's no bigger dweeb than Halloween III.”