In any franchise the name acts as a primary signifier to the viewer of the content, it creates audience expectation as to what will happen over the course of a narrative. So, when a film titled Halloween III: Season of the Witch commences with a static, telephoto long shot of a small figure running from an unknown force, those less familiar with the production might assume what should be lurking in the background would be the very same shape that stalked Laurie the two prior films. Dismay, then, might be an understatement for what members of the audiences felt when they discovered that this grown man’s terror is caused by nothing more than a nondescript businessman wearing a suit. It goes without saying John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill’s attempt to create an anthology series struck a chord with fans of the series, most of whom reviled the film at the time of its release. Box office numbers were disappointing, critics were stumped and shortly thereafter the duo sold away their interest in the title Halloween.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is as good of an example as any film of how audiences interact with film, and just how important expectations are to the experience of cinema. Despite his ostensible death at the end of Halloween II, and with a poster and ad campaign containing nothing to suggest Myers’ presence, fans were still miffed because two films with direct narrative continuity suggests a pattern which was not upheld. Beyond its lack of narrative semblance, Halloween III wouldn’t even satisfy those fans with an expectation of genre, as the film is more reminiscent of a pod film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers than the splasher and splatter genres which the original popularized.
Scanning the internet today, though, it’s clear that the tide has turned for Tommy Lee Wallace’s foray into the series: at this point, mounting a defense for the film as become arguably as popular as attacking it. It makes sense, thirty years after the dust settled, that this shift in perception has occurred. At this point, with a couple of clunkers in the series’ rear view mirror and the expectation cemented for something different than Michael, audiences are willing to accept what isn’t a total surprise. It helps, also, that Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a very good film, and possibly the second best of the long lived franchise.
Of course, the most obvious way to talk about Halloween III--outside of it as this fascinating case study in how audience expectation can morph over time and impact reception–is as the obvious critique of consumer culture and digital anxiety that the film reflects. In many ways, this thematic terrain necessitates the change in genre that Wallace and co-writer Nigel Kneale championed; in terms of horror sub genre history, pod and zombie films have always seemed at the forefront of expressing political anxiety. Despite its release being located towards the end of the cold war, Wallace’s film reflects a much stronger concern about how a capitalist economy functions than the impending doom of a communist take over. Thus, the antagonist is the owner of a big business, and not just any: he’s a seemingly affable man who characters note made his fortune selling cheap gags and originating the practical joke, and one that sells Halloween masks for to bring joy to children. His motives aren’t questioned either: at one point, he tells the company’s top salesman that the masks’ final processing area is off limits due to the incorporation of volatile chemicals in the operation to no push back about why that might be.
The suggestion is, of course, that there is great danger in blindly accepting that a big business owner is endearing, altruistic, or works for the good of the people. The first instance of this is when a homeless man pulls Dr. Challis aside and notes that the factory owner would not even hire the locals, bringing in outside help and causing his economic woes. There is the eery curfew, announced by loudspeaker, which doesn’t allow residents outside their abodes past 6 PM. And there is also the fact that Cochran ends up killing most of the small business owners that provide his stock to consumers, suggesting that even this vital link is not honored or protected. Oh, and, of course there’s the plot to perform a sort of cleansing through the mass murder of children.
The film also suggests that the contemporary consumer is complicit in upholding this capitalist society, even as it acts against them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Silver Shamrock jingle that is so pervasive across the film; it appears on the television and radio constantly through Halloween III. In a moment of reflexivity, it is shown that the screening of the original Halloween will be presented on the holiday as presented by Silver Shamrock, suggesting a bit of self-critique as to the status of the series and the creators’ involvement in the type of economic system they are deriding. One of the most telling moments, however, happens early in the film: despite his continued annoyance at the theme, both Dr. Challis and his ex wife watch as their children recite and sing the jingle, before sitting down entranced and watching it play on the television. Both of the parents are relatively apathetic towards the corporate brain washing of their children. The film’s critique is furthered by Dr. Challis’ continued absence; he would rather run off with an alluring woman than watch his children, and only cares about their safety from the ad and the damages of consumer culture when it is far too late.
Halloween III takes these themes and also reflects in them an anxiety about the growth of technology; the film reflects this is the digital version of the jack o lantern it plays over the credits, in stark contrast to the naturalistic ones used in the first two films. In the third act, it is revealed that normal workers have been replaced with highly loyal robots. This plot point can, of course, be read in two ways: it either further suggests the damage of a capitalist economy is in training a set of robotic workers who don’t question their (malevolent, in this case) leaders, or reflects an anxiety that technology will soon replace the worker and many will be left in the position of the homeless man. It’s a powerful thread that still feels relevant today.
Of course, I’d like to finish off by talking about the ending. It can’t be stated enough just how bold of a chance Wallace takes with the ending, and the studio knew it at the time of its release. The film ends with a horrified Dr. Challis calling an operator to take the ad off the air, attempting to save the lives of countless children and families, and successfully getting it off only two of three. Halloween III cuts to the credits as he helplessly screams that it needs to be taken off the third, signifying the death of countless children across the country. That’s an extremely dark twist, one that falls in line with the themes present across the film about how damaging consumer culture can be when naively ignored, but one that is nonetheless entirely disturbing, even for its new genre. It’s interesting that such a groundbreaking, truly horrifying sequence is followed by the relatively safe sequence of returning to Michael Myers right away in Halloween IV.