Sunday Reads: Timing Is Everything - The Unfortunate Case Of HALLOWEEN III
John Carpenter wanted Michael Myers dead.
That wasn’t always the case. After all, Carpenter was responsible for 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. It ended the film on a perfect note of fear and unease and helped cement the film as a genre staple. Halloween made a bundle, and was for 20 years the most profitable independent film of all time. Small wonder, then, that 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 those filmmakers. That famous last shot had come around to bite him in the ass; if Michael Myers wasn’t dead, financiers queried, surely there was a sequel to keep that gravy train rolling? A logical thought from the money men, 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.) Fueled, as Carpenter tells it, by a six-pack of beer a night, he hammered out the script 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 in 1981, when the second Halloween II starts. “Kill The Shape” is also a more literal mandate in the film, 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 in 1981, watching Michael Myers’ head melt through his flaming mask while The Chordettes chirp “Mr. Sandman” on the soundtrack, things felt pretty damn 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 the holiday 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 Halloween 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 cinema would look very, very different, or at least much lighter on the number of slasher copycats and sequels. The other angle is more personal, and it involves the tough lesson learned by three young mavericks (Carpenter, Hill and first-time 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. Even today, it still feels like such an ambitious, optimistic 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, which features 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 throughout the film; and in one nicely shot montage, children all over the country canvas their respective neighborhoods as the autumn sun sets. We wouldn't see All Hallows Eve so lovingly rendered on film again until 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat.
The plot, derived from an early script 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 black magic combined with the latest in 1982 telecommunications. The plot oozes 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 hero over his head and out of patience, and Dan O'Herlihy as the evil Conal Cochran, channeling equal parts Boris Karloff from The Black Cat and Edmund Gwenn from Miracle On 34th Street, makes for a memorable villain.
All of this is to say that Halloween III has no shortage of legitimate pleasures. Script tinkering and producer meddling (courtesy of Dino De Laurentiis) is revealed through some discordant tonal shifts, but the film maintains a plucky energy level, 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 boy's head is turned into a slimy swarm of bugs and snakes.) Combined with its weird pedigree, this all makes the movie something of a singular experience. Today it’s rightly found an audience, but one can’t help but experience Halloween III through that aforementioned “what if” context, and when we watch it we’re imagining that alternate world where Halloween III was a hit. In that world, it was followed by the 1983 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 annual, all-new 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, as we said in the headline, 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 excellent 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.
This article was originally published in 2014.
This article is part of B.M.D. Guide To: Halloween