By Jerry Chandler
It is perhaps one of the most unfairly maligned horror movie sequels ever made. It was the victim of a franchise creator and the creator’s fans not being on the same page when it came to the creation. Thankfully, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has been experiencing a resurgence in fandom and a new appreciation by fans over the last decade. But back in 1982, Season of the Witch unfortunately had a bit of an uphill climb with horror fans when it was entering theaters. It was meant to be a new direction for the Halloween franchise; one greatly desired by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Fans however wanted none of it.
Halloween turned the horror genre upside down in 1978. It was a revelation for many, and it would influence and shape much in horror films in the decades that followed its release. It was a surprise hit and it created an instant horror icon in the form of Michael Myers, as well as making Jamie Lee Curtis a generation’s ultimate scream queen and hot horror movie commodity. However, the one thing the film was never supposed to be was the start of a franchise centered around Michael Myers or the Jamie Lee Curtis portrayed Laurie.
In the mind of John Carpenter, the film started out as The Babysitter Murders. It also wasn’t originally set around Halloween. The horror holiday setting was suggested to him as he was working out the details of the film, and then he went with the name based on that. Even Michael Myers was barely even supposed to be “Michael Myers” in the original concept. Indeed, the fully masked Michael Myers doesn’t even have a screen credit with that name. Only the unmasked versions do. The killer in the film in the fully masked form that’s become so iconic was simply referred to as “The Shape” in the script and the credits.
There was also an element to him that was not exactly human. The Shape was meant to be a boogeyman of sorts. He was pure terror killing randomly and with largely no rhyme or reason to his actions. He was simply there to instill terror in the characters and the viewer, and to leave an impressive body count in his wake. Indeed, Carpenter even saw the idea of a killer with a vague past and with no set agenda- no reason to kill other than the thrill of killing so randomly –as a scarier concept than a character with a fleshed out backstory and an untestable motivation. He also liked the idea of a bit of a Twilight Zone styled ending. You kill the monster, but then you discover the monster is gone because, in the end, you can’t really kill evil. You can’t stop and kill a boogeyman.
That was to have been the end of The Shape. His story was ended. He was to have drifted off to become just another boogeyman that might be out there somewhere going bump in the night.
Then the studio powers that be stepped in…
Halloween was successful beyond anyone’s expectations. There was money to be made in continuing the story of The Shape- now very popularly officially called Michael Myers –in a sequel or two.
Neither John Carpenter nor Debra Hill actually wanted to return to the world of Michael Myers. But, in their words, they were forced to do it. Hill and Carpenter banged out a story and a script for the sequel, and Carpenter came up with what he felt was the only reason for Michael Myers to continuing hunting Laurie; he made her his sister. To that end, he also filmed new scenes once filming started on the sequel, largely with Loomis and Laurie, to add into the first film and extend its runtime for television. These scenes would add some backstory to Myers and help build the sequel’s family relationship revelation.
He also sought to end the story of Michael Myers in a rather definitive fashion. Not to get too spoilery for the few of you out there who haven’t yet seen it, but let’s just say that the idea of Michael Myers walking into another sequel with any great believability was more than a tad bit farfetched by the end of the second film in the Halloween franchise The ending of the film really should have been the end of the character and then some.
Halloween II was a hit in 1981, and the studio wanted more. On that end, Carpenter and Hill pitched an idea that they had discussed before. They suggested that the film franchise live on as a sort of anthology series. Rather than going back to the Michael Myers well for very likely poorer fan reception and diminishing box office results, the films should feature a new and unrelated story every year set around the time of Halloween. Amazingly, given how much studios will bleed something dry beyond the point that it’s viable, the studio went with it. One year later, Halloween III: The Season of the Witch was released into theaters.
The film was not an untroubled production even before facing the fans in theaters. It was originally to be a Joe Dante directed film, and Joe and John had tapped Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit, The Woman in Black, The Witches, Beast) to write the script. Dante would leave for another project, and Tommy lee Wallace was tapped as the new director. Wallace proved to be a solid enough director for the film, but he lacked the style of Dante. Further, Kneale would leave the production and demand his name be removed from the credits after changes to the script were ordered by producer Dino De Laurentiis. He wanted the script changed, and Carpenter and Hill reworked it in order to simplify it and add more gore and nudity. Still, the final product was an enjoyable horror film, and it made its box office debut in late October.
The fans immediately hated it.
It was accused of being campier than the previous films. Not entirely untrue, but also not relevant for a film that was not meant to be what the prior two films were. The look of the film was complained about by some fans. It lacked the visual style and familiar atmosphere of the previous two entrees in the Halloween franchise. Again, it was not really a valid or relevant observation. This film was no more meant to look and feel like the prior films than Star Wars was meant to look and feel like Star Trek. Season of the Witch was an entirely different concept than the hacking and slashing chronicles of Michael Myers. That name brings us to the single biggest complaint that fans made. Not only did the film have no Michael Myers, but it was clear that it had absolutely nothing to do with him at all.
The fans took the attitude of Michael Myers or bust, and the film faltered. It was still a modest financial success, but nothing like the Michael Myers films. Between the fans turning on the film in theaters and then giving it poor word of mouth and home video sales, the studios saw the idea of going back to a film with Michael Myers and other familiar characters as a no brainer.
Then the fans were ultimately rather unkindly disposed to the films they got with Michael Myers in them. While some fans would later say that efforts like Halloween H20 were enjoyable enough, many of the same people who complained about there being no Michael Myers in Season of the Witch would ultimately declare that the last truly good Halloween film with that character in it was Halloween II. But, frankly, for some of us, that act was wearing thin before the end credits of Halloween II rolled. Michael Myers was truly a creation that may have been best served by being a one and done deal.
Fortunately, as new generations of horror fans have come along and as some older fans have watched Season of the Witch again for the first time ages, Season of the Witch has started to finally find its following. There’s almost a touch of serendipitous irony to seeing Season of the Witch, the conceptual brainchild of John Carpenter, labeled a failure when it first hit theaters and then as years go by start becoming seen as something of a classic seasonal horror film by so many. It puts in nicely in the company of so many other films more strongly associated with John Carpenter.
What Halloween III: Season of the Witch offers up is an immensely enjoyable film with a wonderful mix of horror, creepiness, mystery, comedic moments, and even science fiction. While Nigel Kneale wanted his name removed from the production entirely due to how much he felt the story he created had been rewritten, oversimplified, and gored up, there’s an amazing amount of his wit, style, and intelligence still to be found in the film’s story. His DNA is absolutely all over this creation, and anyone who loved Kneale’s other works or the works that inspired him or were later inspired by him should love Season of the Witch despite the final script’s plot seeming to have a few holes in it.
Season of the Witch starts out quite effectively by giving us a terrified old man running for his life and rambling on about the ones coming to kill everyone while being chased by men in suits. He reaches a hospital, presumably safety, and is killed in rather short order by a man in a suit who then steps outside, gets into his car, and goes poof in spectacular, fireball fashion. It completely throws you off and immediately sets the tone for the film. The story moves to the town of Santa Mira, California as the man’s daughter and the doctor who was taking care of him (Ellie and Dan Challis plated by Stacey Nelkin and Tom Atkins) investigate what led to Ellie’s father’s rather gruesome death.
From there the film plays on themes (like paranoia) more common with sci-fi horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It provides a nice balance of man’s growing fear of technology, old world fears like witchcraft, and perhaps lingering Cold War fears that the people around you and with you aren’t quite who you thought they were and may be the spearhead of an invasion.
There are several major twists with the film as well as a few minor ones, and there’s no way that recapping the story will not get deep into spoiler territory for the many who have not seen it. The only thing I can say is that, if you’ve not seen it, you should correct that this Halloween season.
I’ve seen some people praise the film by calling it the best of all the Halloween films. I’m not sure that I’d go that far. I’m still partial to the first film being my favorite of the franchise, but Season of the Witch is absolutely far better than, in my book, the majority of the seven films that followed it. If you want to find a new Halloween season favorite, don’t go into it with the idea of slasher films or quiet little every town USA setting terrorized by a killer and enjoy yourself. As a matter of fact, don’t think of this film as Halloween III at all. This film is Season of the Witch, and it’s its own animal and completely separate from the Halloween universe as most people think of it.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.