By the early ’80s, Michael Myers had killed nearly a dozen civilians, terrorized countless babysitters, and made millions of dollars at the box-office, all thanks to the twin hits of Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981). But despite Myers’ impressive stats, and the studio’s demand for a new installment, his creators — director John Carpenter and writer-producer Debra Hill — were ready for the mouth-breathing boogeyman to die. “Their thinking on the subject was, ‘We are truly sick and tired of Michael Myers,’” says Tommy Lee Wallace, who’d served as the first film’s co-editor and production designer.
So Carpenter, Hill, and Wallace came up with the idea of a creating a whole new horror franchise, one that would follow a different Halloween-based storyline every year. And on Oct. 22, 1982, they released Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the film that marked Wallace’s filmmaking debut, and which was intended to launch a long-running new series. The film’s poster featured not a hint of Myers — just a demonic face, a few shadowy trick-or-treaters, and an ominous tagline: The night no one comes home.
Instead, no one showed up, and Halloween III quickly became a fan-derided, audience-ignored misfire. A few days after its release, Wallace happened to see an executive from Universal Pictures, the film’s studio, at a Los Angeles restaurant. “He almost didn’t acknowledge me walking by,” the 65-year-old Wallace tells Yahoo Movies. “It was clear they were done with me. It was like, ‘Oh, I’m just a piece of s— again.’”
The creepy movie poster made only an oblique reference — in the tagline — to the two previous films in the franchise
But over the past three decades, Season of the Witch has gone from near franchise-killer to beloved curiosity item — a goony, gloomy, endlessly enjoyable joy-buzzer of a movie, one that merely needed a good thirty years or so for viewers to catch up with. “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in that film, whether it’s intentional or not,” says Adam Wingard, the director of indie-horror films like You’re Next and The Guest, the latter of which features a few explicit nods to Season of the Witch. “But people overlooked all of that initially, just because they were so mad that Michael Myers wasn’t in the damn thing.”
Even without the baggage of that Halloween title, Season of the Witch still would have stood out at the time, thanks to its daffy, overstuffed plot: In a quiet California town, a toy company called Silver Shamrock Novelties is churning out a series of best-selling Halloween masks. Unbeknown to its kiddie customers, though, Silver Shamrock’s owner — a malevolent Irishman played by Dan O’Herily, an Oscar nominee for 1954’s Robinson Crusoe — has outfitted the masks with special computer chips that, when triggered by a manically catchy commercial jingle, will kill them on Halloween night. (Those chips, by the way, are powered by pieces of a stolen Stonehenge rock — just one of the film’s glossed-over plot-point asides).
The film’s unlikely hero, meanwhile, is Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), a nurse-goosing, beer-guzzling divorcee who, early on in the film, bails on watching his kids, and instead spends the holidays weekend with a mysterious, attractive, and very young stranger (played by Stacey Nelkin) who inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally!) leads Challis to the Silver Shamrock factory. Along the way, there are killer-android hitmen, a few touches of witchcraft, a cluster of mouth-borne grasshoppers, and at least one grisly face-melting scene.
“We threw in everything but the kitchen sink,” says Wallace. “Halloween III has his weird homemade quality. It’s not that slick. It’s intentionally a little bit funky. It’s like the Little Rascals went out and made this movie, just to spite Hollywood. And I love that.”
The resulting film, a mix of 1950s pod-people hysteria and 21st century technological terror, climaxes with a remarkably bleak ending, one that finds Challis desperately trying to stop TV stations from airing the kid-killing commercial — only to suddenly cut to black, as millions of children ostensibly are brain-fried to death. “I saw Halloween III when I was 10 or 11, during that period when I’d rent everything from the horror section in the video store,” says The Guest screenwriter Simon Barrett. “I watched it with a couple of friends, and we were like, ‘This is bullshit! Where’s Michael Myers?’ Then you get to the end, and you think, ‘Wait, that was actually pretty cool!’”
According to Wallace, that downbeat finale was indirectly responsible for Halloween III’s relatively lackluster commercial performance (according to Box Office Mojo, it grossed $14 million). “[Halloween III producer] John Carpenter called me after we’d turned the movie in,” Wallace remembers. “He said, ‘They hate the ending.’ And to John’s eternal credit, he said, ‘Your ending is your ending. It’s up to me, but I’ll leave it in your hands. You decide.’ And I didn’t think about it for a long time before I said, ‘Let’s leave it as it is.’ And as soon as that decision was made, Universal gave up and decided not to support the movie.”
Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin in ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch.’
The dark ending underscores Halloween III’s key theme — namely, that giant corporations are not to be trusted. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool hippie,” says Wallace, who grew up devouring not only the McCarthy-bashing plot of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but also the anti-advertising agitprop humor of Mad magazine. “I think it’s wise for citizens to be vigilant. I don’t trust big corporations, or big television, or big advertising.”
That message — delivered in the form of a highly comic, continually shape-shifting horror flick — is one of the key reasons Season of the Witch still seems so timely. After all, who among us doesn’t believe that all those smiley-faced, seemingly innocuous, technologically advanced mega-corporations are secretly planning to do us harm? “If you pay attention to what’s going on in the [online] conspiracy scene now, this movie is ahead of its time,” says Wingard. “It’s the precursor to our more conspiracy-oriented era.”
But there’s also a daffy innocence to Witch: Though the film does include a a few shocking acts of violence — including a scene in which a young boy is killed by a Silver Shamrock mask, turning his head into a lumpy, bug-covered pulp — it’s nowhere near as gory as some of the slasher films that dominated the era (including the grisly Halloween II). In fact, it feels closer to classic British sci-fi/horror combos of of the ’60s — not surprising, consider its first screenwriter was Nigel Kneale, who wrote the classic Alan Quatermass series. Had it not been released under the Halloween banner, it could have very well have been a cult hit from the get-go. “There’s definitely a Schrödinger’s cat alternate-reality in which Halloween III is a massive hit, and we never got movies like Halloween: H20 or Halloween: Resurrection,” says Barrett.
Instead, it’s only in recent years that viewers have fully glommed on to Season of the Witch, a movement that began in the late ’90s, when the film’s brooding, electro-pop score (composed by Carpenter and Alan Howarth) was rediscovered by music fans. Tracks like “Chariots of Pumpkins” and “First Chase” are full of creeping synths, spare beats, and gothic-pop melodies, and sound as though they could have been recorded yesterday. ”It’s an incredible piece of music,” says British record-label owner Spencer Hickman. “It stands out with anything being released today by those leading the field of electronic music, whether it’s by Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada.”
In 2012, Hickman’s label, Death Waltz Recording Co. — which was recently acquired by cult-culture emporium Mondo — released a deluxe vinyl version of the soundtrack, which quickly sold out (a new version was reissued earlier this month). And a souped-up Blu-ray edition of the film was one of the first titles from Scream Factory, the horror-movie imprint from respected pop-archeology label Shout Factory. “It’s interesting that now is when this movie has its resurgence,” says Barrett. “It does feel like society is finally ready for the weird experiment that Halloween III is.”
For Wallace, who was heartbroken by Season of the Witch’s initial reception, the delayed vindication has been welcome. A few years ago, he began attending festivals, where he was greeted by fans of not only his later work — including the TV-movie adaptation of Stephen King’s It — but by Season of the Witch aficionados.
"They’d walk up and say, ‘Hey, I know people bad-mouth Halloween III, but I think it’s great,’ Wallace recalls. “That just became the line. Now when I go to these festivals, people come up, and say, “Hey, I know—”, and I stop them and say, ‘You don’t have to say that anymore.’ Halloween III found its audience. There a lot of us out there who think it’s a pretty darn good movie.”