Written and Directed by: Tommy Lee Wallace
Starring: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, and Dan O'Herlihy
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"You don't really know much about Halloween. You thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy. Halloween... the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red... with the blood of animals and children."
After Michael Myers burned to death during the explosive ending to Halloween II, series co-creator John Carpenter decided to take the franchise in a new direction. Instead of continuing the exploits of "The Shape," Carpenter wanted to turn the franchise into an anthology series comprised of stories centered around the holiday itself. Furthermore, Carpenter's role in the creative process would continue to dwindle, as he opted to simply remain as a producer instead of writing or directing (though he would co-write the film's score). Taking over these duties would be Tommy Lee Wallace, who served as an editor and production designer on the original film. From the beginning, Wallace set out to create something altogether different from the previous two entries, as he abandoned the slasher genre completely in favor of creating a "Pod Movie" in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The film opens on Saturday, October 23rd, where a shop owner named Harry Grimbridge is being chased by a couple of mysterious figures. Grimbridge eventually arrives at a nearby hospital and warns everyone that "they're going to kill us all," in reference to Silver Shamrock Novelties, the manufacturers of a popular line of Halloween masks. Unfortunately, Grimbridge doesn't get the chance to elaborate on this warning, as one of the mysterious figures tracks him down, crushes his skull, and then proceeds to light himself on fire. Witness to all of these strange events is Tom Challis, an alcoholic doctor who's gone through a divorce. Before long, Grimbridge's daughter, Ellie arrives in town wanting some answers about her father's death. After Challis buys a six pack and gives Ellie a seductive look, the two head off to the small town of Santa Mira, home of Silver Shamrock Novelties, whose owner, Conal Cochran, is devising a sinister plot to kill as many children as possible on Halloween night.
I think it's quite obvious to see how the deck has been stacked against Halloween III since its inception: it is, and will forever be known as, "the one without Michael Myers." As a result, it never received a fair shot and has been the butt-end of fanboy jokes ever since. While it does seem to get a little more praise these days in fan circles, it's still regarded as a poor film simply because most people can't get past the absence of Myers. When I was a kid, I always knew this to be the case, but I still couldn't resist renting it when I made my first run through the franchise because the cover art along with the film's tagline ("The Night No One Came Home") was just creepy. Incidently, the Goodtimes DVD for the film was one of the first DVD purchases I ever made (along with Goodtimes's release of Halloween II) so I'm glad to have the chance to give the film some official praise here at Oh, The Horror.
Halloween III might not have Michael Myers, but it has plenty of other things: good acting, an interesting mystery, a sinister villain, an appropriately dark tone, and an eerie atmosphere. Headlining the actors is Tom "Miller Time" Atkins as Dr. Challis, one of horror's most legendary figures. Anybody who is able to seduce a girl half his age with a six pack of Miller High Life and the keys to a dingy motel room is surely a force to be reckoned with, and this is not even to speak of his ability to toss a mask onto a surveillance camera (while tied down, no less!). In all seriousness, Tom Atkins is one of the genre's most beloved cult figures, and he's a compelling lead man here. Likewise, Stacey Nelkin complements Atkins remarkably well considering the age difference. I'm not quite sure why she never got much more work after this film because there's nothing here that indicates she's a poor actress.
The antagonist here, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), represents quite a shift in villains for this series. Whereas Michael Myers is a stealthy, mute stalker who remains in the shadows, Cocrhan exhibits a genteel, inviting exterior to hide his sinister, demonic intentions. If that weren't enough, the entire town of Santa Mira is just bit off-kilter, as Cochran's lackeys patrol the streets and enforce a nightly curfew. I'm a sucker for films with weird, isolated towns, and Santa Mira is one of the creepiest towns in any horror movie, as it truly feels desolate and ancient, even, which might ultimately reflect one of the film's greatest strengths: its use of the holiday's ancient, pagan origins.
Whereas Carpenter's original film is steeped in a modern, Americana interpretation of the holiday (trick or treating, horror films on tv, jack o'lanterns, etc.), Wallace takes the holiday back to its roots, where Samhain indicated the slaughter of the innocents as a sacrifice. Without spoiling too much of the plot, I'll just say that Cochran intends to remind the world of the holiday's true purpose, as he plans to make the hills run with blood. That said, there is an absolutely stunning montage that depicts kids trick or treating as dusk settles in all over the nation that's downright creepy. All of this contributes to the film's eerie and sinister tone, as this is a decidedly dark film--there's just no way to not play this plot straight, as it does involve the murder of innocent children. Some have found a subtle irony in the film as it critiques the modern commercialization of the holiday, and this is perhaps best exhibited by the Silver Shamrock jingle that has become infamous in horror circles for its incessant appearances in the film. While the jingle sounds innocent and fun at first, it soon takes on a sinister presence of its own in the film and eventually represents a clashing of the pagan and modern interpretation of the holiday.
Pulling this all together is write and director Tommy Lee Wallace, who was obviously influenced by his mentor Carpenter, as many of the legendary director's trademarks are on display here, including killers sharply interjecting themselves into the frame and moody establishing shots. However, I don't think it's fair to call him a poor man's Carpenter either because he exhibits a lot of skill behind the camera. The film is not flashy; instead, it's appropriately reserved and subtle. Wallace doesn't really rely much on gore, either, but there are some disturbing deaths: a man is decapitated, and the film's most notorious death involves a child's head being reduced to a pile of snakes and maggots. It's too bad that Halloween III was a bomb at the box office because I don't think Wallace ever got a fair shake after this film, as he has mostly been relegated to made-for-television features (like It) and direct-to-video films. Wallace gets a hand from legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey, who crafts some absolutely magnificent shots at times, as he gives the film a dark, moody presence that often resembles some of his work on the original Halloween. Finally, the score (co-composed by Carpenter and Alan Howarth) is one of the best in Carpenter's catalog; the opening credits are particularly creepy and set a dark tone from the get-go.
Along with the original film, Halloween III was also one of the first movies I ever watched when my family got satellite tv back in the mid-90s when it aired as part of a channel's Halloween-themed marathon. I'd already seen the film before, but the fact that I had this kind of access to horror films was monumental, as it opened so many doors that weren't even there before. Of course, the film is now easily found on DVD; the aforementioned Goodtimes disc is out of print now, but Universal re-released the film with an anamorphic transfer a few years back. This transfer is serviceable enough, and the 2.0 mono soundtrack is also well done. There are no bonus features, though, which is a shame. Universal should really give this bit of unsung treasure a special edition, but I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. In lieu of such a release, fans should check out the Halloween: 25 Years of Terror Documentary, which features an excellent segment on Halloween III and includes interviews with Atkins and Wallace, among others. As for the film itself, I think all horror fans that haven't seen this or haven't given it a chance in the past few years should give it a look. If you go in without thinking of it as a Halloween film, you might find a lot to like...just make sure you don't stick around for the big give-away after the film is over. Buy it!
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