Halloween III: Season of the Witch is fairly unique within the broader Halloween landscape, since it’s the only film that doesn’t feature the Michael Myers storyline. At this point, John Carpenter and Debra Hill had decided to turn the franchise into an anthology format, and to devote each new film to a different take on the meaning of Halloween in American culture. While the idea didn’t take off, and was probably a bit ahead of its time, it did produce one of the oddest and most original horror films of the early 80s – a film whose real brilliance has probably been a bit stifled by being relegated to an outlier in such a canonical franchise. If you leave that aside, though, and look at Halloween III for what it was originally supposed to be – a bold blueprint for a new horror anthology – it becomes more and more impressive, while its continuities with the original two films, and the wider Michael Myers narrative, also becomes more evident. For while Season of the Witch may involve a different location, story and cast of characters, it often plays as a sustained riff on Halloween and Halloween II, while also subscribing to their same spatial logic and sense of Halloween as a media event.
Indeed, the first act of Halloween III could easily play as a direct continuation of Halloween II, as a very brief prologue is succeeded by an opening set largely within a big hospital, where a victim of what appears to be a strange hit-and-run is examined by a collection of doctors and nurses. In Halloween II, this hospital space functioned in two different ways – first, to present us with a kind of ideological and spatial substrate to the broader world of suburbia outside; second, to provide a space where the events of Myers’ killing spree could be endlessly mediated and remediated with little disruption from the outside world. Between those two poles, Haddonfield hospital often felt like the motor engine of suburbia itself, not just in the sense of providing a site where birth and death were regulated, but by offering up an abstraction of the way in which the sanctity of the American home functions as the privileged point of mediation for every other component of white American culture.
In Halloween III, the hospital fulfils much the same logic, although the action quickly expands beyond it, and beyond suburbia, to a very different kind of space in order to extend upon the seqiel’s vision. For the first half, that plays more as a murder investigation than as a horror film, as one of the resident doctors, Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) teams up with the wife of the hit and run victim, Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) to find out what happened to her husband. Their quest takes them to Santa Mira, California, where they gradually discover that a local mask company, headed by one Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy) is planning a mass genocide to take place on Halloween day. While small bits of information are gradually gleaned over the course of the film, it eventually emerges that Cochran has stolen one of the stones from Stonehenge and implanted it in his factory, where he has linked it up to a circular bank of televisions to help control the airwaves through a series of ads, and a catchy jingle, with which he has saturated every channel In addition, he has placed a computer chip, containing a tiny grain of the stone, in each of his masks, which are designed to trigger a mind control mechanism for the children wearing them on Halloween.
While both of these are presented as discrete forms of manipulation, the underlying implication of the film is that the advertisements for the masks, and the mind control mechanism of the masks, are organically connected, and that by watching the advertisements the targeted children become more conducive to mind control once they buy the masks. From the outset, that creates a very different rhythm from Halloween, which took place on Halloween eve, and Halloween II, which took place on Halloween morning, as director Tommy Lee Wallace captures a more panoramic sense of the build up to the holiday, in which Cochram’s nefarious plan simply forms part of a wider media preparation and anticipation. One of the key ways in which the two components of the hospital space of Halloween II – overmediation and suburban substrate – came together was by creating a suburban horror experience that was particularly conducive to being watched in suburbia, with many of the scenes feeling pitched more to television than to the big screen. While Halloween III is more cinematic in scope, television itself is now very much the subject matter, as Cochran’s plan manifests first and foremost as an accumulation of televisions across Wallace’s mise-en-scenes, which are cluttered with screens, advertisements and sets.
In fact, this accumulation of televisions is the real supernatural presence in Halloween III, to the point where Cochran often feels as if he is simply taking advantage of this media presence rather than engendering or creating it himself in any way. Drawing on his work as art director for Halloween, Wallace’s vision not only exudes a dazzlingly sculptural taste for the different ways in which televisions can be arranged and orchestrated in space, but reimagines the original film as a television sculpture, culminating with an extraordinary sequence in which Cochran tests his plan out on Challis, strapping him into a chair and placing a mask on his face before turning on the television in search of one of the advertisements for his company, only to find that Halloween itself is playing in a primetime slot. To make the scene even more evocative, this is the first time that Carpenter’s distinctive score recurs in this third film, in what initially appears to be the soundtrack, only for Wallace to reveal that Challis is actually watching it on the television. Following that sublime fusion of diegetic and non-diegetic spaces, Wallace embarks upon a montage sequence that returns us to Carpenter’s Midwest, and then expands out to all the locations in the United States where masks are sold and ads are airing, from Baton Rouge to Phoenix.
This extraordinary series of images is a bit like seeing the anthology vision of Carpenter and Hill condensed to a single montage sequence, as Wallace evokes and suggests a plethora of other Halloween stories that might be told if there were time, as well as a broader sense that the overmediation of Halloween, and the centrality of Halloween as a point of suburban mediation, makes it impossible for any one of these stories to summarise the holiday in its entirety. While it’s hard not to regret the lost prospect of this anthology, Halloween III does capture this sense of Halloween media in quite a remarkable way on its on terms, as the omniscient advertisements gradually balloon out into a broader focus on surveillance and scrutiny, in which the Steadicam shots of the first two films are subsumed into a series of sweeping panoramas of Santa Mira, usually anchored in the surveillance cameras planted above the town. With even the most distant vantage points embedded in a invisible first person perspective, the distinction between regular and point of view shots is collapsed even more thoroughly than in the first two films, making it feels as Michael Myers is present in spirit and spatiality, even if the specific events of his story have been discarded.
In the original two films, it was Myers’ mask, above all, that collapsed this distinction between first and third person address, since its steadfast, depersonalized gaze meant that it was both radically identified with the camera but also demanded the camera’s attention as an object in its own right. In Halloween III, the import of that mask has been splintered out into all the masks that have been mass produced by Cochran, while Myers’ dead gaze has been dispersed into all the children that are planning to use them when Halloween arrives. As a result, Halloween III builds an even more provocative thesis than the first two filns, suggesting that the American child is where the contradictory demands of American suburban normality are most strenuously mediated, and that Halloween is when these contradictions are most permeable and available to the senses. While Cochran doesn’t have any single motivation for trying to destroy the holiday, he does frequently invoke the pagan idea of Halloween as Samhain, a time of chaos in which the sacrifice of children was required to maintain the balance of society in the face of occult forces requiring satiation.
Those occult forces are more present in Halloween III than in either of the previous two films, meaning that the demands placed on children are even more unbearable in their contradictions as well. In one of the eeriest scenes, Cochran shows Challis a mock suburban room that he has constructed in his factory – it could easily be a mise-en-scene from the original films – and then demonstrates the effect of his mask and advertisement on a normal suburban family. As the child puts on the mask and the ad plays, the parents’ bodies are eviscerated from the inside, spewing snakes, spiders and bugs as if figuratively expelling all their most organic trappings, before turning into robots to be used for Cochran’s purposes. Part of what makes this sequence so eerie, however, is that the parents never quite seem to “transform” into robots, nor does their child seem to have any active agency in their devolution beyond the fact of wearing the mask and watching the advertisement. Instead, the conjunction of consumerism and mass television, normally so comforting to children, happens to function, on this one day of the year, as a perceptual augmentation that exposes the robotic mundanity of suburban life rather than “transforming” it in any discernible way. In that sense, Halloween III is not unlike Carpenter’s later film They Live in the way it generates horror from heightened ideological perception, while it also feels like a touchstone for the Cedar Cove creepypasta and the first season of Channel Zero it spawned.
So primal is this suburban tableau that Cochran orchestrates and destroys that Halloween III often feels as if it is coming very close to providing an abstract schema of the spatial and ideological logic that underpins suburbia itself. Time and again, this collective and abstracted gaze that looms out from behind the masks – usually so innocent, but on this one night so threatening – is subsumed into the blank stares of car windscreens, as if the only place this ideological basis might be glimpsed outside of Halloween were in windscreens that linger on us a little too long as we make our way through suburban landscapes. If the focus on ideology anticipates They Live, then this fixation on cars also strongly anticipates Christine, and the way it forms a spiritual sequel to Halloween in its efforts to capture and inhabit the collective and unconscious gazes that constitute suburbia, as well as the way those gazes are typically naturalised. The first time we see Cochran is behind a windscreen, while the opening scene, with its eerie car-pedestrian chase beneath a highway overpass, could easily be taken as a blueprint for Christine. Whether or not Carpenter was influenced by the film is another matter, but the point remains that Halloween III is original enough in its vision to not only remain true to Halloween despite featuring a new cast of characters, but to also anticipate the ways that Halloween’s spatial logic would inspire Carpenter too.
When we do return to Michael Myers in Halloween IV, then, it’s very much by way of the interlude of Halloween III, as his fixation with promiscuous teenagers has almost entirely been displaced by his psychic connection with children, and especially with Laurie Strode’s young niece, who forms the protagonist of the next two films in the cycle. If, as Halloween II suggested, the suburban family are both the ultimate site and object of surveillance in American culture, than that turns the figure of the suburban child into a near-mystical mode of mediation, even or especially as the child is typically considered to be outside or beyond mediation, and to be a privileged signifier that can’t or shouldn’t be mediated in any way.
That’s a pretty heavy message, and yet it isn’t to say that the comic, campy elements are missing either – they’re just as present in the opening hospital sequence as in Halloween II, and they’re also what give the second act of the film its cosy investigative arc. The main character, Challis, could also be cast in a frat film as much as a horror film, continually weathering harangues from his ex-wife about child support and alimony, while only embarking on the investigation in the first place because he’s charmed by the young wife of the victim, and her regard for his paternalistic virility. For the first part of the film, it almost makes you wonder whether Wallace has a bit of an axe to grind when it comes to divorce, but the ending undercuts that comic sleaziness in the most brutal possible way, as Challis returns to Ellie Grimbage for a last burst of sleazy solace, only to find that she has also been turned into a robot, or perhaps always was a robot, confronting him with the robotics of his paternalistic fantasy at the very moment he needs her to prop up his masculinity. With that stopgap falling away, and alienated from his own wife and kids, Challis finds himself utterly impotent on the cusp of a genocide in which children are both agents and victims, making for an ending that is every bit as poised in its indeterminacy and imminent chaos as any of Carpenter’s films – a fitting conclusion to what is, all in all, the strongest film in the franchise after Carpenter’s original.