Saturday, 18 May 2013

Obligatory Retrospective Review of a Beloved Childhood Thing #2: Halloween III

If you missed the first Obligatory Retrospective Review of a Beloved Childhood Thingor just didn't really get what I'm doing with this series - then allow me to elaborate. Regular readers will no doubt be aware that I'm not very merciful to a lot of modern media - it's not that I'm Joffrey Baratheon and I'm incapable of any form of positive emotion, but rather, because I enjoy things too much. My formative years were spent playing games like Eternal Darkness, ShadowMan, reading Dickens and Tolkien, and watching Platoon, In the Mouth of Madness and High Plains Drifter; films, games and books which all serve as the keystones of my entire existence. So whenever I experience something new I'm inevitably going to hold up against the things that made me who I am. But at the same time, these things are always worth re-evaluating and exploring anew.  

Moving on.

One of the things I enjoyed most about being a carefree and (probably) dickhead of pre-pubescent was the unbridled joy of sneaking downstairs at midnight to watch a movie my parents had forbidden me from seeing. The immense feeling of accomplishment I experienced every time I managed to successful navigate past that one creaky step - or push the TV set's lamentable spring loaded on button - is something I doubt I'll ever top.  It's an experience you can never regain: I'm a grown man now, if I want to ignore my better judgement and stay up till 4am to watch Gremlins, I'll bloody well do it - even if I risk turning up to work looking like I had spent the evening with Pinhead. One of the earliest examples of this secret pleasure, that I can still recall, was seeing Halloween III: Season of the Witch for the first time - back in 1997.

Released in 1982 - the year of the Commodore 64 - Halloween III was wildly different from its predecessors (and subsequent sequels); with director Tommy Lee Wallace deciding to go down the sinister corporate conspiracy route. And with the Eighties being the decade of hollow narcissistic culture, big business and corporate excess, he certainly had enough fodder for his thinly veiled social critique. As for 1997 - the year our plucky hero sees Mr Wallace's work - well, I don't remember much. The first Harry Potter book (Philosopher's Stone) was released that year, and that took up the majority of my attention. I also remember my family being rather exuberant about 'New Labour' being voted into office (I know right). And of course, there was the death of Princess Diana. Once again, it was another year of death and plebs achieving power.

"Doesn't matter, had sex."
The General Consensus: 

With the exception of IT, Halloween III is probably Wallace's most well known film to date. Being the scared sheeple they are, the general public did not respond well to the absence of Michael Myers - despite the fact that by the end of Halloween II he was deader than a Lego manufacturing business in Minecraft. Critical response ranged from: "Meh, it's a generic 80's horror," to "Halloween III is directly responsible for the K-T Extinction Event."

How I Remember It:

Whenever I think of Halloween III, I mostly remember this little jingle - the soul-searing “X more days 'til Halloween,” advert that appears in the background throughout. It was so annoyingly innocuous and catchy, and honestly sounded like something the Child Catcher would have as a ringtone.

As for the film itself, it encapsulated everything that I enjoyed about the beautiful mysteriousness of the night. I distinctly remember the cinematography exuding a certain surreal and almost dreamlike vibe - much like my frequent secret 'night-excursions.'  To this day, Halloween III is the first film that comes to mind when I'm asked what I consider to be the quintessential Eighties horror flick.  

Does It Hold Up?

So, I've probably seen Halloween III half a dozen or so times since my first viewing. One thing that has always surprised me about the film is that it's considered the black sheep of its rather extensive family. People really seem to hate it with all the passion of Helen Mirren berating an uncouth audience. I mean, it's not even objectively the worst one - practically every other entry in the series could hold that distinction. To be rather honest, I don't understand why this series is constantly placed up on a pedestal - even the iconic original was largely derivative of the Italian giallo films. It's like when you come up with a really good joke, but then that one prat* comes along, steals it, and becomes more popular than Lord Byron on Steak and Blowjob day. But I digress.

I think that, in part, Halloween III can be considered a victim of the series’ own success: the original intention was for a Creep Show style anthology horror series, united under the Halloween banner. But the two ‘Michael Myers’ movies were so financially and critically successful, that the films, and their iconic antagonist, became associated with the genre it had modernized. So despite whatever had been intended for the future of the Halloween series, the response to H3’s negative reception was a shift back to the slasher genre, and pumping the Michael Myers saga for even more sequels (a practice that was well entrenched in that particular genre by 1988). Hardly surprising considering Hollywood is as misoneistic as American patriot living next door to a Communist. 

Don’t get me wrong, Halloween III is by no means a ‘good’ movie (in the traditional sense at least): plenty of the criticism aimed at the movie and its quality is perfectly legitimate, but we’ll get back to that later. 
The plot is a fairly standard affair: we follow Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) as he investigates a mysterious murder at the hospital where he works, eventually uncovering a bread crumb trail that leads to a corporate conspiracy led by megalomaniacal entrepreneur Conal Cochran. Dan, along with the victim’s daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), travels to a small town in California to uncover the secrets of the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory and its mysterious suited inhabitants. As usual, the bodies slowly begin to pile up like Dexter Morgan's suddenly in charge of the local prison's parole board.  

Cochran's diabolical plan is to create a boy band from investment bankers.
Part of Halloween III’s appeal is how it's essentially a smorgasbord of everything that was great about horror from that era. The whole affair has an incredibly seedy vibe, and, as mentioned previously, reminds me of a time when I would sneakily stay up till 2am - on a school night no less - to watch the films I would never normally be allowed to watch. The special effects are somewhat ropey - but they’re still enjoyable, in a ‘Westworld’ kind of way - and it’s rather startling when a jerkily moving android pops up on screen to synthesized wails. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth managed to compose an excellent raw, electronic soundtrack that fits the film perfectly and sounds like the noises Optimus Prime makes when watching The Lake House. The majority of the plot takes place at night, which along with the shoddy FX and dirty synthetic tones, helps to create an atmosphere that’s fairly unique to this film.

Even the characters themselves are seedy: our protagonist (Dr. Challis) is a sleazy womanizer and alcoholic, who initially seems more concerned with bedding Stacy Nelkin than stopping Cochran. He's the type of doctor who'd treat your alignments just so he and his fists could put you back in hospital. As for Cochran, well, his motivations are never explicitly explored: we only learn of his creepy obsession with ancient rituals, and misopedist desire to sacrifice children. It's all left intentionally vague, dropping only mere hints to witchcraft and paganism, but it works. One particularly disturbing moment comes when Cochran states: “The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red... with the blood of animals and children,” it leaves a lot unanswered questions, especially how Cochran is able to talk about an ancient happening as though he was there. 

The violence is pretty tame in comparison to the previous Halloween movies, taking a more off-screen approach; in most instances we see the execution and aftermath, but the most brutal parts of the act are cut off, as is the case with the ‘drill kill’ and the woman who is blinded by lasers. H3 does, however, feature one of my favourite on-screen deaths, though some context is needed to fully appreciate it. Cochran’s entire plan is reliant on the children wearing the masks his company produces, at the exact time the company’s mysterious advert is playing; it's for this reason the annoying little jingle plays throughout the movie. The advert somehow spawns a plethora of deadly snakes and insects INSIDE the unwitting victim, who then slowly decays whilst the critters escape and kill anyone in the nearby vicinity. I was honestly blown away the first time I saw that scene, it's so brutally creative and rather unsettling; it's also fairly graphic for a movie that actively avoids explicit violence.

Elizabeth instantly regretted having that Vindaloo.
This was director Tommy Lee Wallace's first time in the director's chair, and though he went on to direct cult classics Fright Night 2 and IT, he's never made another movie that's had quite the same grungy ethos. As stated earlier, it's not a perfect movie: it comes across as though Wallace never really decided whether he wanted it to be a supernatural horror, or a techno-paranoia tale; so rather bizarrely, it combines elements of the two. It's practically a pastiche of Wallace's favourite movies and directors; the societal fear regarding corporations and technology is reminiscent of classics like: Soylent Green, Logan's Run and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whilst the more surrealist elements are in line with the work of Dario Argento and David Cronberg.

The whole corporate conspiracy to destroy/enslave mankind had already been done to death in the seventies - as had the social critique. I imagine by the early eighties, Halloween III would have seemed hackneyed and derivative; but using the benefit of hindsight, we are able filter out the good from the bad, and Halloween III comes across as one of the better examples of social conscious ‘mad scientist’ fiction. It's hard to say whether it would have benefited more from not being a 'Halloween film': it had an oversaturated market going against it, so I doubt being its own standalone film would have made much difference; it's only recently started to find appreciation.

So to conclude, H3 isn't exactly what I would call a fantastic film: it pretty much squandered its premise, and Mr Wallace's criticisms aren't exactly as ‘biting’ as they probably seemed in his mind; but it's a definite must see for fans of films like Phantasm and Scanners. Rewatching it for this review hasn't altered my opinion in the slightest, I was never under the illusion that Halloween III was The Shining, but it's still a guilty pleasure; a movie that tried to do something a little different during a period of studios focusing on slasher flicks. The bold coda, long burnt into the dark recesses of my mind, is incredibly bleak; just like that time Macbeth played a game of I've Never.

"I don't care what you say; Maniac Cop was a great film!"
*I'm talking about you, Matthew Brown. 

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