27 July 2008

SUMMER OF BLOOD: MEANWHILE, AND FAR AWAY...

Now here's something surprising: after Halloween II, producer John Carpenter wanted to take his franchise away from the implacable killer Michael Myers (who was, at any rate, dead), and try something with little precedent in cinema history. Going forward, every new Halloween film would be a stand-alone horror story set on October 31, and so the series would become an anthology, and not just a programmatic genre exercise in which teens get slaughtered by a psychopath. Indeed, so committed to this idea that writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace's Halloween III: Season of the Witch can't be called a slasher film by any standard - it's a nasty-hearted paranoid action thriller with horror atmosphere.

It grossed about half of what Halloween II made, and a chastened Universal followed it up with a programmatic genre exercise starring Michael Myers, made without Carpenter's involvement. But that's a story for next time.

Fan consensus is that Season of the Witch is a terrible film because it tells a story without Myers. This is a false belief. Much like Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, which is often cited as the worst F13 entry on account of it wasn't Jason Voorhees behind the hockey mask, the third Halloween is bad for reasons that go far beyond the killer's identity, not to mention the fact that plenty of awful movies were made with Michael Myers (while virtually nothing but awful movies were made with Jason). No, there are more than enough giant logic holes, stilted characters and idiotic developments to make sure that Season of the Witch is bad for reasons transcending its simple poorness as a sequel. I for one find the idea of rebooting Halloween as an anthology series sort of exciting, anyway: it does something to temporarily make one forget the rancid taste of Halloween II, and at least Season of the Witch is hardly any worse than that boondoggle.

Let no one say the film doesn't play fair: from the first instant, it's clear that we're watching a very different Halloween, one that initially looks more like one of those techno-thrillers so big in the '80s than a horror film of any kind: as synthetic music plunks away (the score is credited to John Carpenter and Alan Howarth; I assume the latter was responsible for everything outside of a handful of quotes of the original film's music), we see what is very clearly TV phosphors in close-up, so close that you can see between the lines of resolution. Over several shots of orange lines being rendered, the most generically action-ey font you could imagine gives us the list of offenders this time around (if I'm not mistaken, it's the same font that David Lynch used in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). Eventually, the image cuts away to a far-enough shot that we can tell it was a cartoon jack o'lantern on the television.

Then the movie proper begins, on Friday, October 23, in northern California (that theoretically sets this 1982 film in 1981, by the way, but if the Friday the 13th movies taught us anything, it's that we can't pay attention to such details or we will go mad). A man (Al Berry) runs through a dark parking lot, carrying something orange, pursued by an grim fellow in a suit (who is, I believe, played by stunt coordinator Dick Warlock). Add in the synth score, and this is definitely shaping up like a period action film rather than a horror picture. This feeling is made all the stronger when the running man crushes the man in black with a car, injuring himself. The car-crush-death isn't really a slasher film killing in concept, and it's certainly not filmed that way; and as it happened, I found myself hoping against hope that maybe the change in tenor would fit the Halloween brand name well - the opening scene really does work as far as it goes, setting up a mystery right off and kicking things off on a huge burst of forward momentum. Assuming you can ignore that damnable score.

One hour later, according to a needless intertitle, a gas station attendant (Essex Smith) is sort of watching the news on TV. Apparently, a megalith has been stolen from Stonehenge. That's only kind of important, though: what really matters about this scene is that we're about to see the most horrifying thing to appear in any movie of the 1980s. A quintessentially early-'80s video effect brings up the logo for a company called Silver Shamrock Novelties, as a really nasty ear-bug starts up: to the tune of "London Bridge Is Falling Down", somebody starts to trill, "Eight more days 'til Halloween / Halloween / Halloween / Eight more days 'til Halloween / Silver Shamrock." A little boy's face appears, bobbing maniacally back and forth, dissolving into a latex skull mask. The announcer (voiced by director Wallace) comes on and informs us that there's still time to buy one of the superawesome Silver Shamrock masks, in one of three (Jesus, a whole three?) styles. My favorite part is when the announcer breathlessly claims, "They're fun, they're frightening, and they glow in the dark!" which always somehow reminds me of "They're young, they're in love, and they kill people", only stupid. Anyway, I want to make sure everyone has a real good sense of what this commercial is like, because it's a fairly major character in the film. Oh, hell with it:



That commercial totally fucks me up. Seriously. The first time I saw that kid's head waggling back and forth, I started to shudder uncontrollably. After that terrifying apparition, we jump rails over to a house where Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is visiting his ex-wife and kids with a present: Halloween masks! But just douchey old-school Halloween masks, and the kids are pretty much disinterested, and Mrs. Ex-Dan smugly notes this as a victory (she is played, incidentally, by Nancy Kyes, who played the doomed Annie under the name of "Nancy Loomis" in the two prior films; she would later marry, and still later divorce, Tommy Lee Wallace). Apparently, Dan is not such an attentive dad as all that, and we shortly see why: all it takes is one call from the hospital where he works, and it's all "fuck off kids, I've got to save lives." Asshole. And the life he's got to save isn't even an imperiled life! It's just the old man who was running in the opening scene, and he's mostly just scared. Dan arrives just as he's being admitted - incidentally, there is one moment where three black actors all appear onscreen at one time, and two of them say something, and I believe this to be an unprecedented moment in '80s horror. In the background, that godawful commercial starts up, and the old man starts to scream about how "they" are killers. For his trouble, he's tranquilized and put to bed. One nurse makes a comment about how unusually quiet tonight has been, which I choose to believe is a joke at the expense of Halloween II and its Amazing Empty Hospital. It's not quiet enough, though; just a few minutes later, a second man in black (Norman Merrill, I think - look, these characters don't have names and they're all just bunched against each other in the credits) pops into the old guy's room, and kills him by eye-gouging. The killer then runs out and jumps in a car, where he burns himself alive. In the chaos following, as Dan gets chewed-out by his ex, we find that the old man was clutching a pumpkin Silver Shamrock mask, with a goddamn huge Silver Shamrock button on the back.

The following morning - Saturday, October 24 - a vacant-eyed brunette with giant '80s hair shows up: she's Ellie Grimbridge (Stacy Nelkin, who the same year co-starred in Going Ape!), and it was her dad who was gouged to death. She demands answers, of which there are none, and stomps off; then on October 29 - wait, what? That's like, a big jump in time. Anyway, she shows up at Dan's local bar, right as the TV reminds us all that Silver Shamrock is proud to sponsor a special screening of the classic horror film Halloween in two days, right before "the big giveaway". That's a real bold step, right there. And maybe they would have gotten away with it, if only it didn't turn into a big plot point and we didn't see clips from Carpenter's film another three or four times, and got reminded that we could be watching a much better film. So Ellie asks Dan for help, and they go to his little locally-owned novelty shop, where she raids his datebook, in which he apparently wrote everything he did every single day. It turns out that one of the last things he did was to travel out to the world headquarters of Silver Shamrock, in nearby Santa Mira, a town founded and populated mostly by Irish immigrants. Dan and Ellie are flabbergasted that the Irish might make Halloween masks, because obviously all the Irish care about are leprechauns and half-gallon jugs of beer. Incidentally, this will prove to be the most racist-against-the-Irish film to have been made in America in the latter half of the 20th Century, so buckle in. Hey, if every film has to be bigoted against something, at least this is something different! The two drive up to Santa Mira, where the locals watch them scornfully - "I feel like a gold fish," says Ellie, and Dan replies, "It's a company town." Oh, well that makes sense. They pull up to the local combination gas station & hotel, where the owner Mr. Rafferty (Michael Currie), gives them the rundown on the town, and oh, faith an' begorrah, is himself ever a cartoon Oirishman! And in fact, I think the actor is Irish, but still. It's embarrassing just to watch it. He points out the land-yacht owned by the town's preeminent citizen, and the owner of Silver Shamrock, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy, who when we hear his voice, sounds not even a little Irish, but more like a Snidely Whiplash-esque melodramatic mustache-twirling villain).

Thus begins the bane of so many horror films, of every age: We Have To Keep The Heroes Safe But Something's Gotta Happen, So Let's Tread Water For The Middle Third. Apparently realising that the only two characters we've stuck with for any length of time are obviously going to be around for a while, the filmmakers suddenly toss a whole pile of Expendable Meat our way: Marge Guttman (Garn Stephens), a very angry woman who's pissed that she had to drive all the way to Santa Mira after Silver Shamrock lost her order, Dan's Girl Friday back at the hospital Teddy (Wendy Wessberg), who occasionally relays vital information like, "we still don't know what happened with that crazy self-immolating assassin. Call back!", and the inconceivably horrible Kupfer family: Buddy (Ralph Strait), Betty (Jadeen Barbor), and Little Buddy (Bradley Schacter). With nothing else to do, Dan and Ellie make out and then fuck, despite the total lack of attraction between them earlier in the film, and despite the fact that she's decades younger than he is - a fact helpfully underscored when she needlessly states that she's older than she looks. By the way, say what you will about hack horror directors in the '80s, at least they knew how to film a simulated sex scene. A totally needless body-count killing kicks things off (a crazy hobo, played by Jon Terry, gets his head pulled off), and for a while the film just wanders all over, trying to make things last for the full 90 minutes: Marge tampers with a Silver Shamrock mask and shoots her face off with a beam of light, the Kupfers go on a tour of the mask factory which Dan and Ellie manage to bogart (apparently, Buddy Kupfer is the world's best vendor of Silver Shamrock products), we learn that Cochran's novelty empire made him one of the wealthiest men in the country, and the Suspension of Disbelief Meter shoots into the red when we have to reconcile that fact, and the repeated claim that just about every damn kid in America has a Silver Shamrock mask, with the company's six employees and a product line consisting of three different items. Spin, spin, spin, little plot.

Having seen enough to know that Cochran is batty and suspicious, and that Ellie's dad must have gotten on his bad side, our heroes try to flee Santa Mira, but an army of Cochran's men in black stop them. Dan manages to wriggle his way into the factory, looking for Ellie, when he stumbles across a clockwork woman; a second later, when he punches right through one of the henchmen, we find that they are robots themselves. Cochran is evilly pleased that Dan has learned so much, and wishes to tell him all about his evil plot, since "being a medical man, you should find it interesting." Nothing about what follows makes that statement even remotely logical. It turns out that Cochran stole the Stonehenge megalith, and is using its power to create evil magic masks, which turn the user into venomous snakes and bugs, a fact that he demonstrates for Dan using the Kupfer family. Remember, the only reason this film is bad is because it lacks Michael Myers. Though it was surely unexpected that Little Buddy Kupfer would actually get killed, particularly in such an outré manner, morphing into a rattlesnake that bites his father's pants. To death.

Cochran's plan, elaborated: at 9:00, after Halloween is over, there will be a giveaway to some mask-wearing kid watching TV. Do please note that the continental US enjoys four separate occurrences of 9:00 PM every day, and that Cochran's scheme involves all of the major networks agreeing to screen the same movie at the same time - incredibly, it later turns out that this is exactly the case. And why, Dan wants to know, is it right to do this awful thing. Because Cochran enjoys a good practical joke, but also...

...and here Season of the Witch gets its very own Samhain speech, and O'Herlihy even manages to one-up Donald Pleasence by pronouncing "Samhain" correctly. Apparently, as a son of the Old Sod, Cochran is pissed that we've all forgotten about how Halloween was born in the blood rites of the ancient druids. He wants to make it a night of sacrifice again, and since this particular Halloween witnesses a perfect alignment of the planets, he can use the power of Stonehenge to et cetera. He then ties Dan in a room with a TV and a mask, and we see that even though Halloween has been on for about 20 minutes, it's about one hour into the movie. There is some surprisingly good use of the Carpenter score playing on the TV as Dan escapes his prison way too easily and breaks out to find Ellie. The last twenty minutes of the film are sort of too stupid to recap, but it's all much more action-oriented than horrific. Let us just say that in one scene, the Robo-Ellie that either replaced the real one, or always has been there (the film is terrifically unclear), attacks Dan, and he knocks her head off; then her disembodied arm attacks him, and I though "okay, this is a deliberate comedy now, right?" and then her armless, headless body attacks him, and I started weeping silently. At the very end, Dan calls...God?...to turn off the advertisements, and two stations do so instantly (ah, the days of three TV stations). All over the country. He can't get to the third quite in time, and he screams and the film ends.

I'll say this about the film, they could sure afford the hell out of Dean Cundey, whose very blue-inflected cinematography falls somewhere between his work on Halloween and Halloween II; that is to say, this film still looks like a million bucks, and I kind of can't stand that he keeps being associated with these films, and peeking ahead it appears that I don't have to any longer. Other than that, this is just one long stream of '80s horror crud. The acting is uniformly ignorable, although Dan O'Herlihy - a character actor since the '40s, and good enough at it that Orson Welles cast him as Macduff in Macbeth - makes for a charmingly obvious villain. Stacy Nelkin, on the other pole, is one of the stiffest and least emotive actresses I've seen in all my days of watching slasher movies, and that has led me to some absolutely intolerable performances. The score is generic, though that genre is the cop movie, and not the horror film, and it never stopped bothering me. The gore is distinctly un-tame for a film of this vintage, right when the MPAA was starting to get a lot of letters from irate parents, but it's also kind of goofy looking - particularly the head-pulling scene.

And then, there's that goddamn story. I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to write about it in such detail. But it's so weird! Not weird i.e. "atypical." That part is cool: middle-aged heroes who have sex and don't die (well, Dan doesn't), and a plot structure that couldn't be farther from a slasher movie if it tried to be. I mean weird i.e. "Stonehenge will turn all the children into bugs and snakes." That might have worked in a comic-horrific Vincent Price movie in the 1960s, but everything about Season of the Witch is played deadly serious. I know that everybody was still recovering from all the coke they did in the '70s, but really? Stonehenge? And a let's-bring-back-the-druids conspiracy? It's better than yet another Jason clone, but Jesus, it's no wonder they couldn't sneak this bizarre little fable under the eyes of even the least-discerning horror fans back in the day.

Body Count: 8 people plus another 14 robots, one of whom was Robot Ellie. Since the movie is so vague about what actually happened to her, I'm not counting Human Ellie, if indeed she ever existed.

Silver Shamrock Ads: 12 appearances, although we only see it in full, I think, 3 times, and one of the other times it's just on the radio. Still, it's awful enough that even that amount is far too much. How that fucking thing propelled Silver Shamrock to become the most successful mask-seller in America is beyond me.

Reviews in this series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chapelle, 1995)
Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (Miner, 1998)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)

3 comments:

Aaron Fenwick said...

Have to agree with you on that Silver Shamrock ad... I have disturbing childhood memories of that myself *shudders*

a famous historian said...

This film always reminds me of a particularly silly episode of The X-Files (structurally, and with the whole 'sinister town dominated by powerful man' theme), minus the charismatix leads. Sadly, it's nowhere near as good.

Jennifer Mantin said...

@a famous historian. Actually I disagree, I hated the X files and H3 is the best in the series after the original.