Thursday, November 6, 2008

Halloween III (1982): or, Tricks Just Ain't What They Used to Be

It's easy to get entrenched in a specific point of view, to an extent beyond the weightiness or even usefulness of the original argument that occasioned it. I'd wager we can all think of times-- whether we were discussing politics, religion, or the whether the responsibility for one party's having nearly dipped her ass in the toilet water is more appropriately assigned to the party who left the seat up than to the party who couldn't be bothered to even take a freaking LOOK at the thing before plopping right down*--where the question itself takes a back seat to the emotional investment both sides have in their stated, taken positions. Heels get dug in, battle lines get drawn, and the war rages independent of the larger considerations of right and wrong.


In such cases one runs the risk of becoming intractable, locked into not only a point of view but a moment in time, so that even when circumstances, tastes, or experiences bring new interpretations to the old data, one feels he cannot, MUST not abandon the argument into which he's poured so much time and energy. It takes an epiphany, a special kind of leap to climb out of the trench and reconsider things with a fresh, open mind. And, as it is often said, it takes a big man to admit he was wrong.

I am, if nothing else, a big man.

Also, hairy.

I decided shortly after my first viewing of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, more years ago than I'd care to admit (so long it might actually pre-date the film's production in a weird Dr. Who kinda way), that I just didn't like it. It wasn't because of the lack of Michael Meyers--while I do like the big guy, I'm not as emotionally invested in him as many around the horror blogosphere seem to be. It just failed to click for me, failed to coalesce into anything that stuck in my brain and said, "Hey, check me out--I'm awesome." Apart from a few clips on the requisite Halloween retrospectives and the occasional internet paean to the third flick's undiscovered genius, I thereafter avoided giving Halloween III much thought at all. When it did pop up, my thoughts usually ran, "Oh yeah, that's the one I don't like," and promptly dismissed it.

Well now I'm older, hopefully wiser, and definitely more understanding and forgiving of cinematic craziness than I was in my younger, overly serious days. So after listening to the Duke wax poetic on Tom Atkins's moustache for the umpteenth time, receiving a sealed command to the effect from the Administrative Offices of the Tenebrous Empire, and generally failing to find anything else appropriately holiday-themed and MAD sounding for my Halloween viewing this year, I decided to put the past behind me, swallow my pride, and give Halloween III another chance.

Internets: I was wrong.

Tom Atkins does more drinking and smoking before 10 am than most people do all day.

For the two or three people out there who don't know the story already, here's a quick and probably not entirely accurate history lesson: legend has it that after successfully ripping off--er, improving upon the holiday slasher formula pioneered by Bob Clark's justly revered Black Christmas, a young John Carpenter had Hollywood by the tail, not to mention a trailer full of empty Marlboro cartons. Dutifully cashing in with the relatively quick, right-where-we-left-off sequel Halloween II (a movie that unlike H3 I have *always* liked), the most successful indie filmmaker in history hatched a new and exciting plan for the series--rather than focusing on The Shape, each sequel would focus on the holiday of Halloween itself, delivering a new spook story every year or so, raking in the holiday horror bucks and allowing the directors and writers to flex their creative scary muscles while not being tied to any one set of characters or situations.

It's actually a very sound plan--a sort of "movie series as extended anthology" of the kind attempted by the HBO Tales from the Crypt movies.* But while we can safely blame Dennis Miller for the failure of that latter day series, John Carpenter's scheme was doomed by its progenitor's massive success. The Halloween brand was already locked in moviegoers' minds as "The One with Michael Meyers," and audiences proved unwilling to go along with any plan that did not involve his unsmiling, paleface-Shatner mug. The plan was abandoned and other writers and directors brought back The Shape in a series of profitable but largely bad sequels, leaving John Carpenter to pursue other projects while not sitting home smoking or cashing his steady royalty checks. Therefore Halloween III: Season of the Witch now stands as the only cinematic evidence of what might have been.

*The similarity of these movie-making schemes has led some conspiracy theorists to suggest that The Crypt Keeper is in fact an aged, tobacco-withered John Carpenter himself, trying to give the plot another go. Extensive investigations in comparative photography have not yet ruled out the possibility that the two entities are one and the same.

"Power Rangers? Iron Man? Don't be gauche."

I'm not going to go through an extended point-by-point summary of the plot; the Internets are lousy with them, and I don't need to add to that. In compressed form: the manufacturers of the most popular line of Halloween masks of the season turn out to be evil Druids from Ireland, who have stolen a piece of Stonehenge and are using chips of the magic rock along with modern technology to turn each mask into a Black Magical Head-Bomb! When triggered by a special television broadcast on Halloween night, the masks will kill all the little ghoulies watching by turning their brains into venomous snakes, spiders, and flesh-eating beetles, which will then presumably kill everybody else. Local alcoholic divorced doctor Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) uncovers the mask company's wicked scheme and must fight the CEO's army of superstrong clockwork automatons to prevent all the little monsters (including his own kids!) from getting a treat that would make Charlie Brown's rock-bag look good.

And there's no Michael Meyers. Get over it.

Revisiting H3 after all these years, I can see where it lost the younger me. It starts off silly and just gets progressively more insane until energetically leaping over the line into gleeful batshittery at the end. It does not operate by the same rules that apply to real life, or even cinematic life. It works instead by what La Belle Dame Tenebrous has called "kid logic." For instance, the villain's motivations are never quite clear--basically he's doing this because he's eeeevil, and that's good enough. The logistics of stealing a massive slab of granite from one of the best-known archeological tourist attractions in the world (and somehow smuggling it to a small rural town in California completely under the radar) are brushed aside with a throwaway line of dialog. ("We had a time getting it here--you wouldn't believe how we did it!") And the automatons--entirely gearwork and oil, they somehow have the power to crush skulls and rip heads off spines--that's one tightly wound mainspring! And with a single anonymous phone call, an unknown doctor is able to change the nationwide programming of 2 out of 3 major television networks. To the younger me, it's all just too many pills to swallow.

Of course the older me is ADDICTED to those pills.

Stick out your tongue and say AAAAAAAAAAAAUGH!

Because the thing about Kid Logic is, while it's not heavy on explanation or logistics, it excels at the spooky, stick-with-you idea or image. Why would anyone give a known killer--in an asylum--a razor-sharp hook for a hand? I dunno, but think of that thing hanging on your door handle. It WORKS. Same thing here--only turned up to eleven and set on FIRE.

It helps that the kids themselves are the targets of the wicked, deadly scheme. Baddie Conal Cochran (an excellently elegant and creepy Dan O'Herlihy) is not screwing around here. HE'S COME FOR YOUR CHILDREN. I mean, clockwork guys ripping the heads off hobos and battle-axe women with blowed-up faces are creepy enough, but GRAPHIC CHILD MURDER? That's above and beyond. I would posit that Lil' Buddy Kupfer's icky demise in Testing Room A (why are they testing on the DAY of the event? It doesn't matter) is directly responsible for the continued dismal sales of Jack-O-Lantern masks in the United States to this day.

In lieu of plot summary, I offer you this catalog of awesomenesses, taken chronologically from my viewing notes. Please feel free to add your own geekery over favorite moments in the comments:

  • NIGHT SPRINTER! Lacin' up his shoes to keep the Samhain Safe! Crushin' Mormon-Bots between cars in a junkyard! Unfortunately, they know his weak spot. (Hint--the back of the bridge of his nose.)
  • "Eight more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween..."
  • Mormon-bot goes all Buddhist Monk in the hospital parking lot.
  • DR. TOM ATKINS. The look on his face says "Man, I shoulda stayed in welding school..."
  • Tom has obviously banged the red-headed coroner--I'm guessing in at least eight of the 24 morgue drawers.
  • Wait, Michael Meyers IS in this one--on the TV at the bar. Tom's the only patron--I guess business *is* slow at 10:00 am.
  • NIGHT SPRINTER's daughter is a black hole of acting ability. However, compared to Tom's ex, she's irresistible.
  • The clerk at the hotel in Santa Mira: IRISH AS FUCK.
  • "Where do you want to sleep, Dr. Challis?" "That's a dumb question, Ms. Grimbridge."
  • Drunken Hobos: Now with the Easy-Opening Top!
Geezer Geyser
  • The world needs more sweaty, freckle-backed Tom Atkins love scenes.
  • Conal Cochran: the Man, the Myth, the Creepy Old Irish Dude.
  • Tom calls in a favor from the coroner. He pays for his favors in COCK.
  • Winnebago dad lists Cochran's accomplishments: "The Dead Dwarf Gag? The Soft Chainsaw?" WHY ARE THESE NOT IN THE MOVIE?
  • Tom's always either having sex or throwing back a shot. I bet sometimes he does both.
  • Knitting Woman Automaton will forever haunt my dreams.
  • 'Little' Buddy Kupfer's death--one for the ages.

That'll never come out of the shag.
  • This whole child-murder plot is actually quite chilling.
  • Coroner has to eat a Makita. Buys it Reservoir Dogs-style.
  • Money quote:
    "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... It was the start of the year in our old Celtic lands, and we'd be waiting... in our houses of wattles and clay. The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal, and the dead might be looking in... to sit by our fires of turf. 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."
  • Tom's mask-tossing skills are second to NONE.
  • I don't know who Dick Warlock is, but I'm betting he's an international assassin.
Conal Cochran: "Suck it, Mike."

So there you go. I think the tally speaks for itself. I'm glad my friends forced me to give this one another go, because now I see what I've been missing all these years. While not perfect, H3 is always entertaining and even manages some creepy moments scattered amongst all the completely insane kid logic of the plot. So H3, I apologize. 2.75 thumbs. I'll be seeing you again...

358 days till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween...


Tenebrous Kate said...

The Duke and I are wise motherfuckers, make no mistake! You've rewarded our combined correctness with a thoroughly excellent write-up of HIII.

As to HIII-related memories, I used to have the flashing pumpkin with Silver Shamrock theme song as my screensaver at work. I had it set up so that once the screen saver popped on-screen, the correct password had to be entered to unlock my computer (for security, not sadism, believe it or not). An unfortunate co-worker of mine was minding my phones at one point and left the keyboard alone for just a second too long, and got stuck listening to the Silver Shamrock theme song for forty-five full minutes while I ran errands. I think her life was forever changed for the weirder...

I love HIII so much that I drafted up an MSPaint picture of Conal Cochran fighting Michael Meyers. I mean, smart money's on MM, but still. That's some thought-provoking shit, right?

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you have come around - for some sick reason I have always loved this one!

The Duke of DVD said...

Hell. Fucking. YES. I've been championing this movie for years now, usually whilst drunk or on 'shrooms, and usually to seedy bar patrons who would rather be left alone. "But Tom Atkins is a GOD, man, an acting deity who's rakish good looks and ability to drink gallons of whiskey are unparalleled on this mortal plane!" I would rage, all for naught.

And now the good Vicar has seen the light. I have so many great memories of watching this in my youth. For some reason it really resonated with my fucked up world view, and that jingle has stuck with me for eons.

Kate, no only is that MSPaint portrait beyond awesome, the story about the theme song being stuck on for 45 minutes while a hapless coworker had to endure it is sending shivers of ecstasy down my spine. Uproarious!

aunt john said...

("We had a time getting it here--you wouldn't believe how we did it!")

Not being one to not read into a throwaway line, I do believe that I detect the faint odor of body cavities!

Wings said...

I like this film, too. That theme song always skulks around my brain when I start counting down the days til Halloween.

Nancy Kyes acting is ... something. And Ellie turning out to be an automaton - freaked me right the hell out!

"Gleeful batshittery" is going to be my new catch phrase. Awesome!!!

Miss Kolleen said...

youre wrong actually. they're watching halloween on TV at one point. Michael Myers IS in this movie!

This one is actually my favorite :)

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the comments everyone! Yes, I have seen the light and stopped the hate. While I don't have the carnal attraction to the flick that the Duke has, I definitely appreciate it more now.

BTW, Miss Kolleen--pls to see my bullet list, item 6. I *swear* I didn't just put it in there! It was there the whole time! :)

Thanks for reading!

Miss Kolleen said...

sure sure... ;)

Fred said...

Holy Boudica Batman, but isn't Dan Herlihy the most amazing druid ever? And I'm also wondering about that entire Stonehenge thing. Did they grab one of the slabs while no one was looking and replace it with some corrugated cardboard and a sprig of broccoli?

This and the original are the only Halloween films I bother watching anymore. The rest (like almost all the Friday the 13th) are interchangeable and dull. Besides, in what other movie made since 1980 can you find a hero who is such an unremitting piece of shit like Tom Atkins? He boozes and smokes like alcohol and cigarettes are about to be banned (and this over 10 years before Mayor Mike hit the Big Apple bars). He bangs (or tries to) anyone in a skirt. He's gutless. He's a lousy father. And he screws up and loses. There is NO WAY a major studio would ever again give an average looking guy like Tom Atkins a starring role, and release a film with such an unsympathetic hero, infanticide and a downbeat ending. For those reasons alone, HIII is a keeper.

Anonymous said...

So glad I've found a page where so many people love this film! A short story of my first viewing of it. I saw it when I was 11 years old, in 1987. My parents were going out for the evening and my brother said what film did I want, and I said "Cocoon" as I hadn't seen it yet. After I got home from school he said "Cocoon" was on loan so he got me Halloween III. Remember I had seen the original Halloween two years earlier and was probably the biggest fan you would find. I think up to that point I'd seen it more than 20 times! Anyway, i put it on later that evening and not only did I love it instantly I didn't even question why Michael Myers wasn't in it! The point is I took it at face value and found it totally entertaining, and it's been another that I've viewed dozens of times since. I saw Halloween II the following year and enjoyed that too. I never cared for the Halloween seuqels that followed and found them dull and boring. The 70's and 80's rule regarding to 'way out' and over the top storylines. Sadly we will probably not see their kind again.

The Vicar of VHS said...

You said a mouthful, Anonymous! Thanks for sharing--it's a great story.

Yes, the 70s and 80s are where it's at when it comes to gleefully insane horror goodness, and it's hard to imagine circumstances aligning to give rise to such a golden age again. Luckily the VCR came in about the same time, resulting in the survival of many of the most uproarious and chilling. Good thing too--otherwise I'd have to find another obsession!

Anonymous said...

The "Producer's Cut" of Halloween 6, aka the ORIGIN (not the CURSE) of Michael Myers, tied the third film into the full series by explaining the Druid folk are part of the Cult of Thorn.

The Cult of Thorn seeks to create a limited, controlled tragedy as a means of preventing plague, disaster, etc. on a grander scale. With Michael, this means that if he kills his entire immediate, biological family, then a hurricane or something is averted. In fact, the original purpose of H6 was to have Michael sacrificed by the cult and have his mark transferred to a new boy.

I'm not exactly sure what sacrificing ALL the children is supposed to achieve, though. A cure for cancer?

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