Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a 1982 horror film and the third installment in the Halloween series. It is the only Halloween film that does not feature a plot revolving around the characters Michael Myers or Laurie Strode (or any relative of hers). Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, the film stars Tom Atkins as Dr. Dan Challis, Stacey Nelkin as Ellie Grimbridge, and Dan O'Herlihy as Conal Cochran. The plot focuses on an investigation by Challis and Grimbridge into the activities of Cochran, the mysterious owner of the Silver Shamrock Novelties company, in the week approaching Halloween night.
Besides wholly abandoning the Michael Myers plotline, Halloween III departs from the slasher film genre which the original Halloween spawned in 1978. The focus on a psychopathic killer is replaced by a "mad scientist and witchcraft" theme. Moreover, the frequency of graphic violence and gore is less than that of Halloween II (1981), although scenes that depict the deaths of characters remain intense.
Produced on a budget of $2.5 million and hoped to be a commercial success, Halloween III grossed a mere $14.4 million at the box office in the United States, making it the poorest performing film in the Halloween series at the time. In addition to weak box office returns, most critics gave the film negative reviews. Where Halloween had broken new ground and was imitated by many genre films following in its wake, this third installment seemed hackneyed to many: one critic twenty years later suggests that if Halloween III was not part of the Halloween series, then it would simply be "a fairly nondescript eighties horror flick, no worse and no better than many others." Cultural and film historians read significance into the film's plot, linking it to critiques of large corporations and American consumerism.
Challis, together with Grimbridge's daughter, Ellie, begins an investigation that leads them to the small town of Santa Mira, California, home of the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory. They learn from a hotel manager, Mr. Rafferty (Michael Currie), that the source of the town's prosperity is Irishman Conal Cochran and his factory and that the majority of the town's population is made up of descendants of Irish immigrants. Challis learns that Ellie's father had stayed at the same hotel. Other guests of the hotel included shop owners Marge Guttman (Garn Stephens) and the Kupfer family: Buddy (Ralph Strait), Betty (Jadeen Barbor) and their son "Little" Buddy (Bradley Schacter). All have business at the factory and eventually meet gruesome ends because of the Silver Shamrock masks.
A day after arriving in Santa Mira, Challis and Ellie tour the Silver Shamrock factory with the Kupfers and are alarmed to discover Grimbridge's car in a storage building guarded by more men dressed in suits. They return to their hotel but find that they cannot contact anyone outside Santa Mira. Ellie is kidnapped by the men in suits from the factory, and in an attempt to locate her, Challis breaks into the factory. There he discovers that the men in suits are actually androids created by Cochran. Although Challis succeeds in neutralizing one of the androids (Dick Warlock), he is captured by the others, and Cochran reveals his plan to kill children on Halloween night. He explains that the Silver Shamrock trademark on the masks contain a computer chip embedded with a small fragment of a five ton sacrificial stone stolen from Stonehenge. When the Silver Shamrock television commercial airs on Halloween night, the chip will activate, causing the wearers' heads to dissolve and spew insects and snakes. Cochran further explains that he is attempting to resurrect the more macabre aspects of the Celtic festival, Samhain, which he connects to witchcraft.
Challis escapes from the cell Cochran leaves him in, rescues an unusually passive Ellie, and manages to sabotage Cochran's computers. The computers and the standing stone form a magic circle; Cochran politely applauds his opponent before the circle's energy discharges through him and vaporized him. Challis flees as the factory is consumed in the chain reaction, but discovers that the "Ellie" he has saved is another android. He destroys it and makes his way to the same filling station where Ellie's father had come eight days earlier. Challis contacts the television stations and convinces all but one of the station managers to remove the commercial. The film ends with Challis screaming into the telephone, "Turn it off! Stop it! STOP IT!!" It is implied that all the children (including Challis's) watching the commercial at that moment are killed and Cochran apparently survived.
Special effects artist Don Post of Post Studios designed the latex masks in the film which included a glow-in-the-dark skull, a lime-green witch and an orange Day-Glo jack-o'-lantern. Hill told Aljean Harmetz, "We didn't exactly have a whole lot of money for things like props, so we asked Post, who had provided the shape mask for the earlier 'Halloween [II] ..., if we could work out a deal." The skull and witch masks were adaptations of standard Post Studios masks, but the jack-o'-lantern was created specifically for Halloween III. Post linked the masks of the film to the popularity of masks in the real world:
Every society in every time has had its masks that suited the mood of the society, from the masked ball to clowns to makeup. People want to act out a feeling inside themselves—angry, sad, happy, old. It may be a sad commentary on present-day America that horror masks are the best sellers.
Most of the filming took place on location in the small coastal town of Loleta in Humboldt County, California. Familiar Foods, a milk bottling plant in Loleta, served as the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory, but all special effects involving fire, smoke, and explosions were filmed at Post Studios.
Wallace told Fangoria that he created the title of the film as a reference to "a plot point"—the three masks featured in the film—and an attempt to connect this film with the others in the series. He explained in the interview the direction that Carpenter and Hill wanted to take the Halloween series, stating, "It is our intention to create an anthology out of the series, sort of along the lines of Night Gallery, or The Twilight Zone, only on a much larger scale, of course." Each year, a new film would be released that focused on an aspect of the Halloween season.
Debra Hill told Fangoria that the film was supposed to be "a 'pod' movie, not a 'knife' movie." As such, Wallace drew inspiration from another pod film: Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Santa Mira was the fictional setting of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the name was adopted for Halloween III as an homage to Siegel's film. Aspects of the plot proved very similar as well, such as the "snatching" bodies and replacing them with androids, and the pessimistic conclusion at the film's end. Halloween III's subtitle comes from George A. Romero's second film Season of the Witch (1973)—also known as Hungry Wives—but the plot contains no similarity to Romero's story of a housewife who becomes involved in witchcraft.
Historian Nicholas Rogers notes that Halloween III is "the only film in the [Halloween] cycle that explores the sacrificial aspects of Halloween in a sustained manner." Film critics like Jim Harper, however, called Wallace's plot "deeply flawed." Harper argues, "Any plot dependent on stealing a chunk of Stonehenge and shipping it secretly across the Atlantic is going to be shaky from the start." He noted, "there are four time zones across the United States, so the western seaboard has four hours to get the fatal curse-inducing advertisement off the air. Not a great plan." Harper was not the only critic unimpressed by the plot. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "What's [Cochran's] plan? Kill the kids and replace them with robots? Why?"
Cast as alcoholic doctor Daniel "Dan" Challis, Tom Atkins had appeared in several John Carpenter films prior to Halloween III. Atkins played Nick Castle in The Fog (1980) and Rehme in Escape from New York (1981). Atkins guest starred in television series such as Harry O, The Rockford Files and Lou Grant. Atkins told Fangoria that he liked being the hero. As a veteran horror actor, he added, "I wouldn't mind making a whole career out of being in just horror movies. After Halloween III, Atkins continued to play supporting roles in dozens of films and television series.
Stacey Nelkin co-starred as Ellie Grimbridge, a young woman whose father is murdered by Silver Shamrock. She landed the role after a make-up artist working on the film told her about the auditions. In an interview, Nelkin commented on her character: "Ellie was very spunky and strong-minded. Although I like to think of myself as having these traits, she was written that way in the script." Nelkin considered it an "honor" to be playing Jamie Lee Curtis's successor. According to Roger Ebert, Nelkin's performance was the "one saving grace" in the film. Ebert explained, "She has one of those rich voices that makes you wish she had more to say and in a better role... Too bad she plays her last scene without a head." Prior to her role as Grimbridge, Nelkin played only bit parts in television series like CHiPs and The Waltons. After Halloween III, Nelkin continued working as a character actress on television.
Veteran Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy was cast as Conal Cochran, the owner of Silver Shamrock and the witch from the film's title (a 3000-year-old demon in Kneale's original script). O'Herlihy had played close to 150 roles before co-starring as the Irish trickster and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954). He appeared in another twenty films and television series before his death in 2005. O'Herlihy admitted in an interview with Starlog magazine that he was not particularly impressed with the finished film. When asked what he thought of working in the horror film, O'Herlihy responded, "Whenever I use a Cork accent, I'm having a good time, and I used a Cork accent in [Halloween III]. I thoroughly enjoyed the role, but I didn't think it was much of a picture, no.
Two members of the supporting cast were not strangers to the Halloween series. Nancy Kyes played Challis's ex-wife Linda; she had appeared in the original Halloween as Laurie Strode's late promiscuous friend Annie Brackett. Stunt performer Dick Warlock, who earlier co-starred as Michael Myers in Halloween II, makes a cameo appearance as a similar character as the android assassin defeated by Challis.
Despite disagreements between Wallace and original script writer Nigel Kneale, the actors reported that Wallace was a congenial director to work with. Stacey Nelkin told one interviewer, "The shoot as a whole was fun, smooth and a great group of people to work with. Tommy Lee Wallace was incredibly helpful and open to discussion on dialogue or character issues."
Although the third film departed from the plot of the first two films, Wallace attempted to connect all three films together through certain stylistic themes. The film's opening title features a digitally animated jack-o'-lantern, an obvious reference to the jack-o'-lanterns that appeared in the opening titles of Halloween and Halloween II. Wallace's jack-o'-lantern is the catalyst in the Silver Shamrock commercials that activates the masks. Another stylistic reference to the original film is found in the scene where Dr. Challis tosses a mask over a security camera, making the image on the monitor seem to be peering through the eye holes. This is a nod to the scene in which a young Michael Myers murders his sister while wearing a clown mask. Finally, the film contains a brief reference to its predecessors by including a few short scenes from Halloween in a television commercial that advertises the airing of the film for that upcoming holiday as a minor story within a story.
Wallace's use of gore served a different purpose than in Halloween II. According to Tom Atkins, "The effects in this [film] aren't bloody. They're more bizarre than gross. Special effects and makeup artist Tom Burman concurred, stating in an interview, "This movie is really not out to disgust people. It's a fun movie with a lot of thrills in it; not a lot of random gratuitous gore. Many of the special effects were meant to emphasize the theme of the practical joke that peppers the plot. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby notes, "The movie features a lot of carefully executed, comically horrible special effects ...." Canby stood as one of the few critics of the time to praise Wallace's directing: "Mr. Wallace clearly has a fondness for the clichés he is parodying and he does it with style."
The soundtrack was composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, who had worked on the score for Halloween II. The score of Halloween III differed greatly from the familiar main theme of the original and sequel. Carpenter replaced the familiar piano melody with a slower, electronic theme played on a synthesizer with beeping tonalities. Howarth explains how he and Carpenter composed the music for the third film:
The music style of John Carpenter and myself has further evolved in this film soundtrack by working exclusively with synthesizers to produce our music. This has led to a certain procedural routine. The film is first transferred to a time coded video tape and synchronized to a 24 track master audio recorder; then while watching the film we compose the music to these visual images. The entire process goes quite rapidly and has "instant gratification," allowing us to evaluate the score in synch to the picture. This is quite an invaluable asset.
One of the more memorable aspects of the film's soundtrack was the jingle from the Silver Shamrock Halloween mask commercial. Set to the tune of "London Bridge is Falling Down," the commercial in the film counts down the days until Halloween beginning with day eight followed by an announcer's voice (Tommy Lee Wallace) encouraging children to purchase a Silver Shamrock mask to wear on Halloween night:
In 1983, Edd Riveria, designer of the film's theatrical poster, received a Saturn Award nomination from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA, for Best Poster Art, but lost to John Alvin's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) artwork. Riveria's poster art featured a demonic face descending on three trick-or-treaters. His artwork was later featured on the cover of Fangoria in October 1982. Oddly enough, no creature even remotely resembling the face on the theatrical poster appears in the film.
As part of a merchandising campaign, the producers requested Don Post to mass-produce the skull, witch, and jack-o'-lantern masks. Producers had given exclusive merchandising rights to Post as part of his contract for working on the film, and Post Studios had already successfully marketed tie-in masks for the classic Universal monsters, Planet of the Apes (1968), Star Wars (1977), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1981). Post used the original molds for the masks in the film to mass produce masks for retail sale. He speculated, "Because the masks are so significant to the movie, they could become a cult item, with fans wanting to wear them when they go to see the movie." Post gave mask-making demonstrations for a Universal Studio tour in Hollywood. The masks retailed for $25 when they finally appeared in stores.
The script was adapted as a mass market paperback novelization in 1982 by science-fiction writer Dennis Etchison writing under the pseudonym Jack Martin. The book was a best seller and was reissued in 1984. Etchison wrote the novelization to Halloween II only a year before.
The film was later released on the VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and RCA Selectavision Videodisc formats in 1983 by MCA/Universal Home Video. Subsequent videotape re-issues were released in 1984, 1987, and again in 1996. GoodTimes Home Video owned the rights at one point and released a VHS in 1996. DVD versions were distributed by Goodtimes in 1998 (with a re-issue release in 2001) and by Universal in 2003.
Halloween III's soundtrack was composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, and was released by Varese Sarabande. It is extremely hard to find today, and those copies found carry pricetags ranging from 80 dollars to several hundred dollars due to its rareness. The film's soundtrack was scheduled to be released as an expanded limited edition of 1,000 units on October 29, 2007. It has been distributed through Buysoundtrax.com on AHI Records.
Tom Milne of Time Out, a British magazine, offered a more positive review, calling the title "a bit of a cheat, since the indestructible psycho of the first two films plays no part here." Unlike other critics, Milne thought the new plot was refreshing: "With the possibilities of the characters [of the previous Halloween films] well and truly exhausted, Season of the Witch turns more profitably to a marvellously ingenious Nigel Kneale tale of a toymaker and his fiendish plan to restore Halloween to its witch cult origins." Although Milne was unhappy that Kneale's original script was reduced to "a bit of a mess," he still believed the end result was "hugely enjoyable.
Halloween III has gained somewhat of a cult following among audiences. Academics find the film full of critiques of late twentieth-century American society. Historian Nicholas Rogers points to an anti-corporate message where an otherwise successful businessman turns "oddly irrational" and seeks to "promote a more robotic future for commerce and manufacture." Cochran's "astrological obsessions or psychotic hatred of children overrode his business sense." Tony Williams argues that the film's plot signified the results of the "victory of patriarchal corporate control. In a similar vein, Martin Harris writes that Halloween III contains "an ongoing, cynical commentary on American consumer culture." Upset over the commercialization of the Halloween holiday, Cochran uses "the very medium he abhors as a weapon against itself." Harris references other big business critiques in the film, including the unemployment of local workers and the declining quality of mass produced products.