Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Not all sequels come from a cynical place. To be sure, most of the sequels we talk about here originate from the notion that audiences will go to see a film with a familiar brand on the poster. The rise of movie franchises proves this to be true to an extent. And with films like Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the Jaws sequels, you see very brazen attempts to recapture the box office successes of the original films. Even today’s attempts at remakes and television series relaunches prove the cynicism around continuing a story has some basis in fact regardless of the quality involved in those productions. It’s just less of a risk to work with established intellectual property.
As we’ve discussed before, that impulse has been around since that first Planet of the Apes sequel — though it can be argued it was also present in the B-movie tier with movie series like Charlie Chan and Thin Man in the 30s and 40s — and it hit a fever pitch in the wake of Star Wars. Around this time, a little scrapper of a movie called Halloween was released. Directed by John Carpenter, it proved to be the most successful independent feature until the 1999 release of The Blair Witch Project. Halloween is a damn fine horror movie and the start of the modern slasher subgenre. With a success like that, you can bet distributors asked for a sequel and this is where our old friend Dino DeLaurentiis enters the story.
For those who may not recall, DeLaurentiis was an Italian producer who moved to Hollywood, where he produced films like Flash Gordon, Manhunter and Orca: The Killer Whale. Like Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, he was interested in a quick return on his investments, but he was also concerned with the quality of his product. Well, to a point anyway.
Carpenter and partner Debra Hill accommodated DeLaurentiis and executive producer Mustapha Akkad’s wish for a sequel as it allowed them to film some additional scenes to insert into the original Halloween for its television premiere. It also allowed them to innovate in a small but curious way. Sequels typically happen some time after the events of the first film. Halloween II occurs immediately after the final frame of Halloween. It also decisively ends the story of Michael Myers. Well … at the time it certainly seemed decisive. Eleven films and three timelines later, nothing about Halloween is permanent.
Halloween II did good business, so DeLaurentiis and Akkad went to Carpenter and Hill again for another film. This time, they acted as producers and suggested a new mode for the series: anthology. Instead of raising Michael from the dead, they proposed a whole new story featuring some facet of the morbid holiday. Each subsequent Halloween could be its own creepy tale a la The Twilight Zone. DeLaurentiis and Akkad accepted the idea and Halloween III: Season of the Witch was born; forever dooming viewers to hear the “Silver Shamrock” jingle as they lay awake at night.
The plot concerns Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) a hard-driking ER doc whose most recent patient is killed by a mysterious man in a suit who immediately burns himself to death in the hospital parking lot. When Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), the patient’s daughter, comes to pick up the remains the next day, she convinces Dan to join her in investigating her father’s death. The pair soon find themselves in Santa Mira, CA, the home of Silver Shamrock Novelties. Ellie’s father sold Halloween masks manufactured by the company and was visiting the factory just before his death. As it happens, other store owners are also in town; guests of Silver Shamrock owner Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy). Soon, bodies start dropping and Ellie is kidnapped by men in lab coats. When Dan goes to rescue her, he learns the men are androids designed and constructed by Cochran himself.
He also learns Cochran is an old school witch who observes Samhain. He finds the gross commercialism of Halloween offensive and plans to renew the old ways by sacrificing children across the country wearing his Halloween masks during a live broadcast at 9pm on Halloween night. Cochran even shows Dan a demonstration of the plan as another shop owner’s son turns into a pile of bugs while watching the pre-taped Halloween night commercial.
The secret of Cochran’s plan is a microchip implanted in the masks made from a piece of Stonehenge. Oh, also, the androids are filled with a viscous green fluid and all of this will somehow bring about the return of magic.
And if the plot reminds you of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers fever-dream, that’s part of the charm. Carpenter and Hill employed Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale to devise the new Halloween story. He and director Tommy Lee Wallace sought something more like Body Snatchers than another slasher. It shows in the finished film as it is moody and off-kilter until the moment Cochran explains the plot to Dan. Even the location, Santa Mira, is a nod to the original Body Snatchers film. Unfortunately for Kneale, DeLaurentiis found the moodiness a step to far from the original Halloween formula and requested more gross out moments, scares, and a revision to Cochran’s backstory. Kneale declined, but Wallace pressed on, adding some genuinely ugly moments — including the death of the store owner’s son — and the reinvention of Cochran, who was originally intended to be a demon, as a witch.
While the revisions may not have led to the solid sort of alien monster story Kneale was famous for, it does give Halloween III a strange edge. Pieces do not align, like Cochran’s use of science and androids to reawaken magic and fear of Samhain. As Roger Ebert observed in his review, the problem of time zones makes it impossible for Cochran to sacrifice all the children in the nation. Also, there’s the fact that Dan acts like a private investigator throughout film despite being an alcoholic ER doctor.
Similarly, the tone is all over the place. The arrival in Santa Mira is appropriately creepy, but when Dan and Elie meet the other store owners, their performances are, well, quite broad. They seem imported from a poorly made farce about the evils of consumerism. And just when the movie nearly regains its creepy tone, it slaps the audience in the face with a sex scene between Dan and Ellie. Then it immediately unveils its biggest gross-out moment when one of the shop owners lasers off her own face with one of the Silver Shamrock microchips. Its decisions like this which lead to the film’s poor box office reception, critical evaluation and divisive status among fans. Some, like me, find the film charming it its attempts to create something so complex and strange while DeLaurentiis stood nearby. Others consider it “complete trash.” And yet still others will never give it a chance because it’s the one without Micheal Myers.
Viewed on its own, however, it’s a perfectly fun and cheesy 1980s horror flick. Sure, it never quite figures out what it really wants to be, but that’s part of the fun of watching it. The cheese appears thanks to all of those conflicting ideas competing for supremacy. And to think it all comes from Carpenter and Hill’s attempt to get away from the cynicism of sequels. In the end, Halloween III: Season of the Witch is in love letter to the shallow-thinking of sequels and a love letter to creepier movies of a previous generation. And if you can get past the lack of Halloween‘s key character, you’ll find a film worth watching. Maybe even two of them at the same time.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms. It’s also available as limited edition Blu-rays from Shout! Factory and Universal.