Saturday, October 31, 2009

Attention To Detail

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH was, is and always will be totally insane. I can’t in any way call it a good movie but I’m still glad that we have this thing around. Weirdly, I haven’t even seen the movie that many times. Up until relatively recently I hadn’t even seen it since I was a kid but even though I didn’t even like it much then (yeah, even then I was already trying to be critical about things) certain moments of this lunatic piece of work always stuck with me. It never hurt that one of the main components of the film has always been a certain song which, appropriate considering it’s supposed to be from a television commercial, is virtually impossible to get out of your head once you’ve heard it. Fortunately, the film makes sure that you hear it many, many more times than just once. Somewhat infamous as the non-Michael Myers entry of the HALLOWEEN series which, considering it’s sandwiched in between all the others, only adds to the weirdness and maybe any cult following the thing has is partly due to people at the time wondering, what the hell is this thing anyway? I guess the idea was, instead of continuing with the Myers storyline, to do a continuing anthology of Halloween-related tales. I can’t defend it. I don’t want to defend it. I’m not going to try to defend it. Why the hell am I watching it again?

Just over a week before Halloween, Dr. Dan Chalis (Tom Atkins of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS) a hard-drinking, alimony-paying deadbeat dad is called to his hospital to treat a man who has turned up, clutching a mask and murmuring “They’re gonna kill us all.” When a mysterious individual turns up, kills the man and then proceeds to blow himself up in a car, Dr. Chalis is appropriately spooked, but doesn’t know what to do about it. Several days later, the man’s daughter Ellie Grimbridge (GET CRAZY’S Stacy Nelkin) tracks Chalis down in a bar and when the two exchange notes they determine that the last place he was headed to before being taken to the hospital was the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory located in the small northern California town of Santa Mira (for all you INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS fans). Run by Conal Cochran (the great Dan O’Herlihy) Silver Shamrock, as anyone in the film knows (except for our lead character, who is first seen trying to give his kids a few crappy non-Silver Shamrock masks as presents), is the biggest producer of Halloween masks around and their incessant advertising (“Eight more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…”) of their three big masks suggests a national craze with each of the annoying commercials trumpeting ‘The Big Giveaway’ set to take place on Halloween night. Dan and Ellie head for Santa Mira to investigate and once they hit the mysterious town are determined to get to the bottom of things. But first, Dan needs a drink and Ellie is more than willing to get to know him a little better while they’re stuck in that motel.

Carpenter had moved on to direct other films by this point but he was certainly involved and though written & directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Nigel Kneale reportedly wrote the first drafts, then later insisted on having his name removed) it certainly has a number of elements that makes it feel like a John Carpenter film—a conspiracy-laden storyline, roving camerawork by Dean Cundey, the steady drone of the Carpenter-Allan Howarth score, as well as the undeniable wideness of the compositions which really does make it pleasing to look at—but something about it feels slightly dumber than it all needs to be. It’s not exactly a credible storyline and the film seems intent on ratcheting things up on a very broad level—some of the supporting characters seem much more crassly played than they need to be (mostly the others staying at the motel) and Atkins’ doctor, usually in search of another drink, is a pretty unlikable lead to follow through a film. Still, I’ll freely admit that a lead character flawed to this degree actually comes off as refreshing in this day and age. The plot point of a piece of Stonehenge being stolen is one of the great screenwriting toss-offs of all time in how they don’t even attempt to explain the plausibility--fortunately, the film has an actor in Dan O’Herlihy who in giving the non-explanation “We had a time getting it here. You wouldn’t believe how we did it!” actually makes you swallow the moment due to his pure enjoyment of the situation. There’s an undeniable grossness to some of the imagery but very little of it can be called realistic, even when someone’s head is being ripped off. It’s just…bizarre and this translates to the overall tone as well.

Calling the town Santa Mira is very clever in bringing a BODY SNATCHERS vibe to things (much of the plot certainly seems like a nod in that direction) and when the two leads check into the motel things feel like a slight PSYCHO riff for a few minutes as well (since they already used the name Loomis in the first film, that’s a nice tradition to continue) and these nods to the past are cleverly woven into things. But when you think about it, have you ever been in a situation where you were staying in a motel and everyone was introducing themselves to you? When does that happen? It all feels like a fourteen year-old mentality as if it never occurred to someone to think this whole plot through. And then there’s the one from the list of biggest plot holes of all time—the movie never considers the idea of time zones in relation to the plot which leads me to believe that on the Earth it’s set on (slightly dumber and sleazier than our Earth) all of America has only one time zone. Not to mention, I want to know who Tom Atkins is calling in the last scene. But when the whole ballgame is laid out by Dan O’Herlihy, not to mention when we get to see what’s going to happen take place in one of his test rooms, the whole thing is just so nutso in every possible way it’s hard not to admire the film for its audaciousness, being willing to approach things from such a satirical and horror angle at the same time. Of course it earns its R rating but it seems designed for kids who want to see an R Rated film, to see the best possible ‘trick’ that the holiday could ever offer. There are elements throughout that I genuinely like such as the easy-listening muzak that drones on from a radio after a particularly nasty murder takes place or how the score from the original ‘immortal classic’ HALLOWEEN, playing on TV as the lead-up to the ‘Big Giveaway’, even gets to be used at one point. The main set housing the Stonehenge piece is a nicely austere bit of design as well. But, like a fourteen year-old boy, the movie seems more interested in how potentially nasty things can get instead. Part of what makes it so dumb is what makes it so weird too (I’m still not sure if I hate the design of these masks or love them, which seems like part of the point). Maybe I don’t even want a more normal version of this film. After all, what fun would that be?

If there’s any charm to be found, the lead actors certainly help. Tom Atkins is given an unpleasant character who seems too beat down in life to do much more than hang out at a bar in the middle of the day but he somehow manages to make the guy determined and likable with all of his flaws. His best moment might come when he’s sitting in that bar by himself and trying to comprehend the silly cartoon that is for some reason playing on the TV in front of him. But really, Tom Atkins is the coolest. Stacy Nelkin doesn’t get much of a part to play—and really, what is up with the romance between these two?—but she is cute and appealing, which certainly goes a long way. Dan O’Herlihy steals the movie, no question about it. He attacks his big scene with a massive amount of relish, bringing a huge amount of clarity to something which can never make any sense. His final moment, both nonsensical and consistent with everything his character has said, is a thing of beauty. According to some sources, that’s Jamie Lee Curtis as the voice of the town curfew announcer and telephone operator. It certainly sounds like her.

Did I mention that it really isn’t that good? Sure, it’s memorable and there’s definitely a reason why it stuck in my brain for so many years, but that doesn’t make it good. It needed someone in charge to really solidify the tone in order to help that happen. If Carpenter had been in charge that might have helped matters, but his films don’t display much of an interest in satirizing the consumerist culture of Reagan-era America with the happy exception of THEY LIVE, of course. So if the insane version of HALLOWEEN III:SEASON OF THE WITCH is what we’re always going to have to watch, maybe that’s for the best. Commercially speaking, they probably shouldn’t have given it the title of a HALLOWEEN sequel; maybe going for a “HALLOWEEN presents” kind of thing would have worked better. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m sure John Carpenter and Tommy Lee Wallace stopped wondering about this long ago. The series returned to the Michael Myers storyline in 1988 and Carpenter was no longer involved. Meanwhile, this film lives on, leaving the rest of us out there with that damned Silver Shamrock jingle running through our heads over and over again for all the Halloweens to come. Which just leads me to think that maybe in some ways, Conal Cochran’s plan really did come true.

“And…Happy Halloween.”


Unknown said...

Love this film and your assessment of it is spot-on. There's no logical reason to really like this film but that's what is so cool about it! It defies logic and you just have to accept that and dive in.

Ellie Grimbridge's demise gets me every time and is genuinely unsettling in an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (the '78 version0 kinda way.

Also, the killing off that entire family who test-screen a Shamrock Halloween commercial is also disturbing in a cool way.

Robert H. said...

"Dumbed down" hits the nail right on the head - there wasn't gratuitous gore in the Kneale version. He was smart to walk away -- too bad Carpenter couldn't have had a little more faith in it.

Darren G. said...

Great piece, Pete.

I think it's okay to like the masks- they're pretty cool, design-wise. I love the flat-out zonked voice of the TV commercial narrator. Like your average patronizing kids show host taken to the nth degree!

Robert H, I'd love to hear more about what was different in the Kneale version, as I've never come across his script for it...

le0pard13 said...

A great take on this, Mr. Peel. I went to see this on its first run, too (along with a handful of others in the theater). I am very much in agreement that the great, and very much missed, Dan O'Herlihy steals the scenes (and the movie) with his sterling presence. There are three things that I always remember from this movie: the gruesome results to the woman from that mask malfunction, DH's immortal delivery of, “And…Happy Halloween.”, and that damn jingle. This is so off-puttingly fun, though. Thanks for this.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I don't have much to add here, but I'm very glad you guys like the piece and also seem to weirdly enjoy this wacko movie with the appropriate amount of humor. I can believe that the Kneale version of the script was different in other ways besides the gore but, hey, at least we'll always have that jingle. Thanks to you guys again!

Captain Vic said...

Aloha, Peel.

Captain Terrific is busy with the Mad Doctor so I have to chime in here, a bit late in the game.

This film has been a perennial favorite since 1982 and I feel no shame proclaiming my love for it in public. Why be apologetic about it?

All its rough edges account for a good deal of its charms. Claims that the film could have been better in others' hands don't really register if the final result is a one of a kind experience.

Horror and sci-fi films of the 1950s were a clear inspiration and H3 is very much apiece with that era. It's a B movie if there ever was one and in it I luxuriate.

As you well know, the majority of kids making movies these days rarely look beyond NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in their "education" and it shows to a painful degree.

I look forward to revisiting this insanity next Halloween.

Anonymous said...

This one has a special place in my heart since it was filmed near my hometown in Humboldt County, CA. Trust me. If you've ever been to Loleta or Ferndale (where this was filmed), you know why they make horror movies here (including the original "'Salem's Lot" tv mini.

Robert H. said...

Mr. Peel,

This interview with Kneale has the best description of his intent and what happened.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Robert H.--

Thanks for that link to the interview, very interesting!

Anonymous said...

Can't believe another weird favorite of mine is blogged about on this site. And similarly can't believe there is a Captain Vic here (a moniker I usually use). One thing I'll never forget about this movie is that when it was released, I was in college and my parents came to a football game and I had a few beers with them with my roommates and I asked them what they had done the night before and they said they went to see Halloween III. I thought that was so cool. Anyway, totally agree with Mr. Peel's assessment, the film isn't very good, but is a personal yearly must watch for some reason. The whole thing is so bizarre, could never be repeated. Stacy Nelkin was hot and, much as I like Tom Atkins, that whole hotel room sequence is just as bizarre as the rest of the movie. Love the Carpenter score, love the fact that, at least for this movie, no MIchael Myers, and love the whole absurdity of it. And the whole family getting wiped out in the hotel room is still pretty creepy and disturbing.

And does anyone else remember there being a "framing" sequence involving some unknown scientist piecing together Michael Myer's mask from the fire/explosion at the end of Halloween II. I could swear that there was such a framing device and that it was present the first time I watched this movie on HBO or Showtime back in the '80's. I remember making fun of that because it had no point and nothing to do with the movie. I can't find anything about this on the internet anywhere. An old Roger Ebert review mentions it though. If anyone remembers this, please comment.