Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Defense of Halloween III

Halloween III: Season of the Witch  is a title that too often brings a shudder to horror fans everywhere, if the internet scuttlebutt is to be believed.  One and a half stars out of a possible four from Darth Ebert, a mere 33% on Rotten Tomatoes (the favorite internet review site of sheeple everywhere), and more slagging on private blogs and websites than any other film in the Halloween franchise all suggest that people just don't seem to like this film.
Well I do.
DISCLAIMER- I need to apologize now as this post might be a little, ahem, adult in language and sometimes impolite-DISCLAIMER
The A number one bollocks reason I hear for not liking H3 is...drum roll please...wait for it...NO MICHAEL MYERS.
Is that honestly the best reason you can come up with?  I don't like the film because it is a new concept instead of the same old slasher-killer.
Wah, wah, eat a bowl of hickory smoked, salted clown dicks, you puke.
I would normally be more philosophical and say, "One reason is as good as another and since it is a matter of personal opinion it would be most insensitive of me to suggest that such a reason as stated above is infantile or in some other way devoid of any merit or logical thought" but as I am capable of putting myself into the place of another and seeing things from that perspective, I cannot be so philosophical, as that is just bollocks.
Multiple sources will show that the team of Carpenter and Hill did not desire to do the first sequel, much less a second sequel and chose to push for an anthology style oriented around the holiday of Halloween rather than continue with a single antagonist-driven series, like Friday the 13th, a fine film series in its own rights.  To this end Michael and his nemesis Loomis were killed in a most dramatically explosive fashion at the end of H2.  The third installment, written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (or maybe not, according to Wikipedia) is a film about Halloween as much as anything else.
Films about Halloween are not as common as one might think, but thankfully they do exist.  Obviously we have such classics as Hocus Pocus, or Trick r Treat, or specials like It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but there are far more films that are set around Halloween without being about Halloween.  H3:SotW happens to work in both groups.  The first Halloween is a film that was not, originally, about the holiday for which it is named, but once set on that date elements of the holiday were woven into the fabric of the story itself.  Consider the way that Carpenter and Hill use the symbolism of Halloween to advance the story and set the mood, but it is just as much a film about the bogeyman, a mythological/folkloric figure that can fit into any time or place.  Thus while Halloween makes excellent use of the tropes of Halloween (costumes, horror movies, trick or treating, scares) it is not a film about Halloween so much as it is a film set around Halloween.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch may have been made to cash in on the success of Halloween but it honestly manages to be a film about Halloween if viewed fairly, which means removing the prejudicial and biased notions based upon a viewing of the whole Halloween franchise from this point backward.  Consider instead what it meant in 1982 when it was the latest of a series made up of 10 films.  The audience had seen the nigh unstoppable killing machine, Michael Myers, burned to a crisp in H2, so however would such a character have been brought back?  This is well before Jason came back from the grave as a revenant and even that was after a less than successful attempt at a legitimate replacement killer.  The early 80's witnessed a dramatic change in how Americans viewed the world around them.  Technology was becoming far more apparent in the daily lives of the average American, an American who had been raised on television in the 60's and 70's and now had children who would never have to know the horror of having only 3 television channels, or having to get up and walk to the telly to switch through them.  In such a technologically savvy and dependent world the ancient traditions were all but lost, seen only in devalued counterparts and representations whose original meanings were long since lost to the mists of history.  The original Samhain had long since been replaced by the commercially viable plastic pumpkin pail Halloween, and that was the argument that motivated the antagonist Conal Cochran, who desired to reclaim the festival by creating terror in the population.  The overt supernatural element (for which modern people hunger, it would seem) was married to a technological element; what better concept for the 80s?
Strange, I know.
There are many good things about this film and a few not so good things.  I'd like to discuss a few of the good things here:
Tom Atkins-Genre character actor and fan favorite, Tom has performed many good roles, including Nick Castle in The Fog and Detective Ray Cameron in Night of the Creeps (Detective, thrill me.).  His role as the protagonist Dr. Dan Challis is a great example of a not classically handsome leading man carrying a film.  I like Tom Atkins very much in this role and the fact that the film is not a slasher, thus no final girl, gives it a throwback to the older tradition of heroic, but ultimately doomed, characters.

Conal Cochran-Here is a villain for a movie about Halloween if ever there was one: an Irish businessman who intends to play the ultimate trick for the holiday his people started and the world appropriated.  Cochran is at turns sinister and charming, like a Bond villain, and even applauds his own loss to the hero (not a total loss, as we learn) with a sense of supreme sangfroid.  He is in every way the opposite of the silent stalker that was Michael Myers, which no doubt added to the dislike of the film for so many people.  This is a shame as Cochran is a great villain.  His evil plot, despite what that twiddle-head Ebert thinks, is clear and understandable.
I suppose a Monty Python joke is appropriate here
The evil plot- Roger Ebert said, in his 1982 review of the film:
     His scheme is easy enough to figure: He wants to sell millions of Halloween masks to the nation's kiddies and then brainwash them to put them on at the same time, whereupon laser beams at the base of the neck will fry the tykes. Meanwhile, he runs a factory that turns out lifelike robots. What's his plan? Kill the kids and replace them with robots? Why?
Funny enough, I suppose, as a critic should entertain as well as inform, but too often I feel that critics don't actually pay attention during the film, as too often I see reviews that seem to get some small, but vitally important and ultimately easy to understand, point wrong.  Cochrane uses robots to accomplish his evil plan, again I reference a Bond villain vibe, he has no intention of killing kids and replacing them with robots.  Clearly in the test case where Little Buddy Kupker's head explodes into insects and reptiles, killing him, his parents, locked in with him, are also killed, presumably by the things coming out of the kid's head, but possibly by the energy of the mask's chip.  Either way the intention is simply mayhem and death, not robot duplicates.  This is a great evil scheme; it is insanely over the top, as a good scheme should be, yet subtle in execution.
Gratuitous John Carpenter reference-The evil plot hinges upon a special presentation shown during a Halloween movie event sponsored by the villain's company.  What movie will be shown on the television?  Halloween of course!   There's your Michael Myers.  This isn't even the same reality as the previous films.  That's part of the charm.
The horror angle-For the most part there are two ways to engender horror in a viewer: show it or don't show it.  In the latter you obscure and hint, letting the observer's own imagination do the work.  Such obfuscation works by playing into the fear of the unknown and is seen in the silent slashers who kill without warning and offer no explanations for their motivations.  The other method is to explain or show exactly what is going on and let the mind deal with the realization.  When the thing explained is so horrific that it causes the mind to break, that is probably the time to spell it out.  Thus, just watching some kid's head explode into vermin from wearing a mask is all fine and good, but having Conal Cochran spell out his whole evil plot gives us the necessary information to feel the horrific impact of what the final scene means.  Without that knowledge the final scene means very little.
A film about Halloween- Possibly the best thing about the film is that it is a film about the holiday itself, not about events that occur in conjunction with the holiday.  The perfect film about Halloween remains Trick 'r Treat  which so wonderfully encompasses the traditions of the holiday in their pure and twisted forms, but two decades before TrT we had H3.  While all the films in the Halloween franchise take place on or about Halloween night, this film is about what Halloween meant and means and the schism between them.  Unfortunately it seems to have lost that laser focus in re-writes, but trust me, it is there.  From the commercials for Halloween masks to the insane druid that steals Stonehenge, there is something of the holiday in the whole film.  And again, let us not forget the evil plot is one big trick.

To be fair, I should mention the bad bits.
Tommy Lee Wallace-Mr. Wallace is, as a director, no John Carpenter.  A look at his credits will show a trend of directing sequels to successful movies that were not as successful as their predecessors.  In Mr. Wallace's defense, that is true of most sequels.  Unless your name is Spielberg or Whale, this is how it is.  Most sequels are less than the original simply due to the requirements of a sequel to reference the original, thus losing some of the originality and freshness we so love in a film.  Add to that the moneymen demanding that recognizable tropes from the first film be present, regardless of story or logic, and you have inferior product.  Mr. Wallace works with what he is given, however, and I applaud the effort.  If, however, you were looking for Carpenter's ability to turn out a classic worthy of Hitchcock on a shoestring budget, well that is not what you are going to get.
A bit late for an anthology-As sequels go, this one doesn't work.  It has nothing but the name to make it a sequel.  As an installment in an anthology goes, this works, save for the sticking point that you don't make a film, see it successful so sign a sequel, then decide to change formats for a third film.  In this one instance I will support the crying of the series "fans" concerning the lack of Michael Myers.  An anthology series is a wonderful idea, but you must let the consumer know that is what you are making.  The gap between H1 and H2 (1978 and 1981 respectively) was filled by Friday the 13th and it shows in the more F13 nature of H2.  The very act of making H2, setting it on the same night (picking up at the end of H1) and adding the (I still disagree with this choice) "Jamie is Mike's sister" MacGuffin creates the expectation of a slasher film series, which is ultimately what the consumer voices cried for and received.  H3 switches into the anthology format with no preamble, warning or explanation and from a marketing standpoint, that was its great mistake.  Sequels relate to previous films, anthologies share a general concept.  Thus it was a poor move to switch.

That's it.  I believe the good far outweighs the bad in this case and furthermore I put it to you, gentle readers, that the merciless Season of the Witch bashing has been nothing more than mob mentality and sheeple defamation of character.  It becomes too easy to give in to poor behavior because it seems funny, or cool, and too often, especially in a film this old, we find that faded memories, or more likely persons having never watched it and parroting what they've heard from other ill-informed persons, have produced a legend that is not only inaccurate, but detracting from a potentially enjoyable experience.  I invite you to go out and watch H3 again, but remove all thoughts of Michael Myers from your mind first, and see if you can see it in a different light.  It is not like it is Rob Zombie's Halloween 2.

Keep your pumpkins lit.

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