“Watch the magic pumpkin!” Celebrating 30 Years of Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Posted on October 22, 2012 by editor

By Keri O’Shea

You don’t really know much about Halloween…you thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy…It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we’d be waiting… in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in… ” Conal Cochran

People expecting another slasher movie must have been deeply perplexed by Halloween III: Season of the Witch – and chalk up another victory for the phenomenon of misleading movie titles, because despite the involvement of John Carpenter and Debra Hill as producers, this is a standalone piece of work, a sequel only in name. Myers and his legend were nowhere to be seen; instead, we had a story of a magic-infused conspiracy, one uncovered by doctor-turned-detective Dan Challis (Tom Atkins, a man for whom all major roles seemed to involve him having a telephone clamped to his head) and Ellie Grimbridge, a young woman whose father died in mysterious circumstances, clutching a pumpkin mask and intoning, “They’re going to kill us!” Thus the mystery began, and although masks figure throughout, that mask does not. Still, for those of us who shrugged at the lack of omnipresent knife-wielding maniacs, we might just have seen a lot to love here. Halloween III has, over the past thirty years, slowly and steadily garnered a defiant following amongst cult film fans. Certainly for this fan, the omission of the omnipresent knife-wielding maniac is precisely what I found refreshing; see, slashers ain’t my thing. I can acknowledge the importance of slashers to the horror genre, especially in the case of the oft-supposed prequels to HIII, but I just don’t get any enjoyment out of them. What I do like, however, is the type of horror represented in HIII: it’s a film which is very much of its time (being bang up to date with its anxieties and concerns) but it also deals with a very ancient cause of anxiety and horror – magic.

And this nervousness about Halloween exists…this fear which is touched upon by Mr. Cochran in the quote above is still very real in some quarters. Even the Holy Father has been known to take a break from rallying against effective contraception to warn against the “anti-Christian” and “dangerous” nature of the festival, and it’s not just Catholicism which has this issue; there are plenty of other fundie nutjobs who share these concerns. But, in dismissing the no-fun brigade, it’s still worth remembering that Cochran’s correct when he says that Challis has a very limited understanding of where all of this comes from. Cochran describes “the festival of Samhain…when the hills ran red with the blood of animals and children.” Human sacrifice might be thin on the ground these days, but it’s still worthy of comment that, thousands of years after the decline of the Celts, the time of their New Year festivities is still associated with mischief, magic, chaos and horror. For many horror fans, Halloween is akin to a religious observance, and for nearly all horror buffs it’s the horror highlight of the year. Perhaps there just is something special about this time of the year – and HIII, with its story of one man capitulating to fate whilst using very modern systems to reinvigorate the old ways, spins a brilliant yarn out of this possibility, and even makes us look at the relationship between the modern and the ancient. More so than that perhaps, in his mention of the ‘Old Celtic lands’, the blatant nepotism of Santa Mira’s Irish worker community and of course the purloined Blue Stone from Stonehenge having its part to play in proceedings, we have Old World attacking New World here. There’s no mention of the Silver Shamrock masks being sold outside the US, and we’re shown quite clearly in the film that they’re being distributed widely across the whole of the United States, but not anywhere else. America is the scene for the tragedy which is about to unfold, and it’s a neat reminder that the safe familiarity of modern life can always be threatened, even by people who have a lot of shared heritage. It can always, all be undone – and of course the end of a known world followed by the birth of another has long been a solid horror theme. The film demurs about the end results of Cochran’s work – but it’s interesting to wonder at the very end about just what sort of an America would remain, after such a massive encounter with some very dark magic..?

But the Old World isn’t shy of making the most of things as they are now, either: in HIII, magic requires (and uses) the trappings of modern technology, on a devastating scale. In doing so, it hits on a lot of bang-up-to-date concerns – current when the film was made, but no less relevant now. The first of these is surveillance…

The old paranoia that ‘someone is watching you’ is no longer paranoia, really: someone very probably is watching you, thanks to an ever-growing network of CCTV cameras. In 2006, the BBC suggested that there were around 4.2 million cameras in use in the UK – roughly one camera for every fourteen people; six years on, we may have more still. Mr. Cochran would be proud. When HIII was made, the possibility of all this was starting to be understood fully. Santa Mira is a CCTV hub, fully under control and being watched 24/7: seeing is power, and from the outset, the unlikely duo of Challis and Ellie have to pit themselves against a combination of insularity and technology. Everywhere they can be seen, they can be tracked – by the ominous be-suited guardians of the town, themselves fairly high-tech…

And of course, Silver Shamrock could only ever have considered orchestrating the biggest Samhain massacre for 3,000 years thanks to the modern potential for the mass manufacture and distribution of their wares. A blend of timeless magic and corporatism is at play here, allowing Cochran to corner the market, selling huge numbers of – sure – pretty cool, but limited-in-design masks to huge numbers of children. And why are the kids so keen? Because they have been more or less brainwashed before they get to be properly brainwashed, that’s why. I don’t mean to sound like a concerned parent here (because I am neither) but HIII is also notable for the way in which it works up a nice satire of the effects of advertising…

The filmmakers may or may not have intended that the jingle they wrote for the film would work so effectively as an earworm for their viewers, but it really, really does. Like all effective jingles, all it takes is a bit of a tune and a lot of repetition – and just like that, it has power beyond its power over the kids in the film; it works on us as well. How many folk do you know who count down to Halloween using this tune? How easy do you find it to get the jingle out of your head? For me, it takes weeks and weeks, particularly when the people counting down to Halloween on Twitter with the Silver Shamrock tune effectively marry it to another earworm and wreak havoc with it (Ben Bussey, I’m looking at you here). I think it’s neat that a TV ad campaign is so integral to a malevolent ambition in the film: the advert plays with (but doesn’t destroy) anxieties about what children see, and what it could do to them. And it’s next to impossible to shield them from this stuff: Challis’s desperate attempts to get the channels shut down get thwarted in the end. It’s not hammered home, but the questions raised about TV and advertising also bring up the topic of subliminality. Maybe, just maybe, whether it’s illegal or not, we’re being manipulated by things we’re not even fully aware of…

Just as Cochran departs from the film veiled in ‘what if?’, so we never see the aftermath of what happens in this now severely-threatened world, where no one is who they seem to be. We can only guess at the horrors unleashed by Challis’s failure to get that last channel shut down, to stop that mass-appeal madness being unleashed. HIII is all about the what-ifs, and maintains a level of ambiguity which marks it even further apart from the ultraviolence of the true entrants in the Halloween franchise which preceded it, even if the misleading title wasn’t enough. There’s surprisingly little on-screen violence, even though some is certainly implied. It’s a film of well-paced atmosphere and creep, with a definite dash of fun.

That said, when I found out that the original screenwriter – the legendary Nigel Kneale – asked for his name to be taken off the credits because he was unhappy with the Carpenter/Wallace rewrites which made the movie much more ‘gory’, I’ll confess, I was intrigued. Kneale’s argument was that his original story contained far more supernatural elements and was massively bigger in scope, with a greater number of characters and a greater range of locations. The rewrite trimmed this, and also reduced the ‘Britishness’ of the original – actor Atkins also complained that the first version seemed positively anti-Irish, but – without the benefits of actually seeing this version, all of this is academic of course.

Still, as much as I’d have liked to see more of the magic in the plot, I think the end version which we have still works pretty well. There’s the intimation of dark forces, in an up-to-date setting with up-to-date trappings. It’s an engrossing story, and also something of an original. Celtic myth-making is still surprisingly underused in horror, when you consider the range of legends, beliefs and beasties it encompasses. Ultimately, playing with the notion that our festival of Halloween is really only just removed from something truly sinister is used to good effect here, especially in the way that HIII links all of this to the brave new world of technology…

The only real shame is that touched upon by Wallace (in this, his first directorial role), who said that his only regret about the movie was its title. That misleading title has probably cost the film a lot of fans who would really enjoy it, and likewise, brought a lot of people to it who were really after one guy in one mask, and didn’t appreciate the film they got instead. Well, it’s a film which has slowly found its audience nonetheless, and fans of a more subtle breed of horror might yet find lots to love right here. Enough of us already do – especially, perhaps, those of us who never got tired of the Halloween season, or the darker heart of fright and revulsion which it brings. That’s something to celebrate, as well as something this underrated movie helps to keep alive. And, guess what? It’s almost time, kids. Time to put on your masks…