Thursday, November 5, 2015

John Carpenter, part X: What the Samhain is going on in here?!


Only in the 1980s.  Or, to be fair, on one of the sillier episodes of The X-Files.  But either way, I adore it.

Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
Written by Tommy Lee Wallace, Nigel Kneale, and John Carpenter
With Tom Atkins (Dr. Daniel Challis), Stacey Nelkin (Ellie Grimbridge), Al Berry (Harry Grimbridge), Dick Warlock (The Assassin), and Dan O'Herlihy (Conal Cochran)

Spoiler alert: oh, man, I've gotta go severe on this bad boy

Halloween III: Season of the Witch was the last movie in the Halloween series that John Carpenter really had anything to do with, and if you go by the official data, even then he didn't do that much: Tommy Lee Wallace wrote and directed; Carpenter and Debra Hill only produced.  Nominally, Carpenter and Hill's big contribution to the third film in the franchise they'd co-created was to send it off in a new direction.  They hired Nigel Kneale, famed writer of the supernatural sci-fi Quatermass serials, to do just that.  Unfortunately, Kneale wanted nothing to do with the crass changes demanded by the film's distributor—no less a figure than Dino De Laurentiis—and had his name removed.  That's where the unofficial history comes in: alongside Wallace, Carpenter reworked the script to Laurentiis' specifications.

At most, then, we can say Carpenter merely helped the film take its final shape, rather than ever establishing himself as a full-fledged co-author, like he did last time.  It was only the fact of Carpenter's much deeper involvement with Halloween II which forced us into our detour through a movie that Carpenter wasn't credited with directing; but at least he was the credited writer.  Thus, if we wanted to, we could legitimately walk away.

Sure, we could do that—if we wanted to.  But now you realize the true size of our endeavor: a retrospective encompassing everything that Carpenter directed since his feature debut—and everything that he had a enough of a hand in that you can still match the fingerprints.

And that's why you've got to wear gloves—hey, wait, why would they need to wear gloves?

And this one's so positively smeared with the man's style, that if you screened the damned thing without its credits—goodness, even if you screened it as The Season of the Witch, and not as a Halloween sequel, as it obviously ought to have been in the first place (but more on that in a bit!)—you would still quickly determine that JC must have been somehow involved, or else it was the work of a fantastically good copycat.  Of course, it really helps if you aren't deaf, too, since the score almost couldn't be by anybody but Carpenter and Alan Howarth.  It is a wicked, often-downbeat, yet occasionally sproingy thing, so chock full their trademarked synthetic doom notes—indeed, so essentially theirs—that it walks right up to the abyss of self-parody.  Sometimes, it even falls in!  But delightfully so, all the same.

As with every Halloween movie up to this point, the score leads the way; and meanwhile, if you did eliminate all the identifying information from Witch as we described in our little thought experiment, you'd sadly be discarding one of the best parts of the movie, the opening credits.  As Carpenter and Howarth's music plays, orange lines scan across the depthless black, and at length, we finally discern the shape of what we're seeing: a pumpkin—specifically, a jack-o'-lantern—rendered on the phosphors of a television screen.  It's hardly the best credits sequence from the Halloween series—I'd stake my life that this honor belongs to Halloween II, even if I've only ever actually seen half of them.  But it announces exactly what kind of movie you're going to be enjoying (or subjected to) for the next hour and a half, a paranoid techno-thriller that is also scary.

...That is, for a certain value of scary that overlaps heavily with the dictionary definition of goofy, but also encompasses the set of all things that are unbelievably stupid.  And I mean that with absolute affection.

Was it Halloween III that finally seduced me into buying the box set?  Yes it was.

This is where we dispense with the obligation of putting this film in its historical context: Season of the Witch, you know, is the one without Michael Myers, and this is a neutral thing; there are, after all, many horror movies without Michael Myers that weren't greeted with naked contempt.  But, of course, now that the Shape was dead and Carpenter and Hill were able to dictate their terms, the idea was to turn Halloween into an anthology series, every October seeing a new horror tale produced by Carpenter and Hill, but given form by new directors and writers.  This, then, is the part I object to—because you could do exactly what Carpenter and Hill wanted without resorting to a hollow exercise in dumb corporate branding.  It's even ironic, given the content of the film that resulted from their effort.  Perhaps audiences might've found more of a use for it back in 1982, if they hadn't been kinda-sorta lied to.  (Amazing referential poster tagline, though: "The night no one comes home.")

Luckily, Witch has been reevaluated in recent years.  Though some commentators have come perilously close to overcorrecting, it's gratifying to see this great movie reclaimed as a minor but enduring classic—for it is just about as unique a horror film as you'll ever find, and not bad on its own merits, either.

So, on with the show, finally!  We begin with a man running through the night, chased by dark figures in slick business suits, clutching a jack-o'-lantern mask.  He evades capture—the first death of the film is a nice, very tactical kill—and makes his way to a gas station to call for help, and there we intuit that his travails have something to do with the commercial playing on the station's TV set.


Rather, they're advertising Silver Shamrock masks, the very same brand of mask that this man—this Grimbridge—has retrieved from whatever hell he's escaped.  It's all very mysterious, and the mystery only deepens when he's admitted into the care of Dr. Daniel Challis, under whose watch Grimbridge's skull is physically torn apart by an assassin who then walks calmly out to the parking lot and burns himself alive.  Well, you know... "alive."  Dan's curiosity is certainly piqued, and it's rather hard to say whether he teams up with Ellie Grimbridge, the victim's daughter, because he wants her body—oh Tom Atkins, you and your hot age-inappropriate love affairs!—or if they only wind up sharing genetic material because they develop an affection for one another while pursuing their common interest, which is to find some answers to the insane questions they've been posed.  Particularly, is it at all possible that the Silver Shamrock company was behind her father's murder?  Obviously, the answer is "yes," and this is clear the moment they set foot in Santa Mira, the company town, ruled with an iron fist by Irish immigrant and transparent supervillain Conal Cochran.  But even so, it will take some detective work, some creepy, silhouette-heavy cinematography by the heroic Dean Cundey, and a simply enormous amount of willing suspension of disbelief to get to the bottom of this far-flung conspiracy, that ranges all the way from Britain to every living room in America.

Arguably, it also involves some wheel-spinning; but this is the name of the game in conspiracy fiction.  If you got your facts straight right away, where's the tension?  And Witch is a rather fine exercise in escalating paranormal suspense: if the elder Grimbridge's fate didn't suggest that something supernatural is happening in Santa Mira, then the part where a drunk has his head pulled clean off would give it away—and the woman whose face is melted with fucking laser magic would break this case wide open.  Let's just lay it out there, since everybody in the world already knows: Cochran's company's popular masks have been manufactured with mystically-charged pieces of Stonehenge inside them, which shall be activated by a secret television signal, broadcast all at once across America during Silver Shamrock's "big giveaway" following a special screening of the 1978 classic Halloween, because, really, where would we be without some off-putting self-congratulation?

But hey, it's got a little bit of Michael Myers in it after all.  Some will say that it's bad form to show a better movie in the middle of your movie.  Happily, Season of the Witch doesn't do that in the first place.  That's right, I said it.  (Even if it did, Halloween does it twice.)

When the masks' Stonehenge chips are activated, their magic shall kill every child in the country by turning them into rattlesnakes and crickets—I mean, I would prefer their heads to simply explode, Scanners-style, but to each his own, I guess!  This should appease the gods with a Samhain sacrifice such as Celtic pagan heaven has never seen and—

Guys!  They made a movie out of this!  It cost two and a half million dollars!  Professionals were engaged at every level of the production!  Dan O'Herlihy and Tom Atkins do a huge Sorkinesque walk-and-talk around a monolith stolen from Stonehenge!  It's extremely well-filmed by Cundey and Wallace, and Peter Jamison's production design is frankly top-notch!

f9r344-r j04mfmk!!!!

Like I said, you already know that this is Witch's plot, and I knew it too.  But knowing and seeing are two different things; nothing can completely prepare you for the experience.  (What about those clockwork robots oh my God.)  I would give just about anything to watch it with someone insulated from its infamy—who did not know what they had in store.  I cannot even compute the power this movie must have had to offend and challenge audiences when it was brand new.  It's all so glorious!  If anything, it's even more ridiculous than The X-Files!

Ha ha, just kidding!  Nothing's more ridiculous than The X-Files.

Of course, if you imagine that Witch's satire of 1980s consumerism gets a bit lost amidst all this mayhem, you'd be right.  (You know what kids love?  Uncopyrighted masks featuring hoary concepts like jack-o'-lanterns and witches that aren't even connected to any extrinsic media phenomenon, and which also offer potential wearers a whole three choices—I assume they must have skipped the part in the script where the bracingly-omnipresent Silver Shamrock commercials are imbued with subliminal mind-control messages. Well, anyway, the part where the jack-o'-lantern mask is activated in a test run is awesome, so it's all good.)

But Witch's saving grace is how intensely and soberly it engages with the dumbest ideas.  Tom Atkins is a Goddamned champion, playing his role with a frankly amazing sincerity, and Stacey Nelkin isn't far behind.  Combined with Cundey's inimitable lens, and the script's well-designed slow burn, Witch develops an oppressive atmosphere where the most nonsensical things nonetheless feel threatening and grim, albeit in a fun, kids' comic book way.  Oh, certainly, it's always very easy to mock—but even as a riff-ready product, the picture's adamantine refusal to ever mock itself remains its signal virtue.

Well, okay: the movie indulges in one moment of true, self-aware, winking absurdity, but it does it in exactly the most perfect spot it ever could.  When Cochran realizes that he's been beaten, Wallace lets O'Herlihy turn to the camera, not to snarl, nor shout, nor swear revenge—but so he can give our hero his respects, as conveyed through the most knowingly preposterous slow clap a body could ever see in its whole life.

This man is class.

Meanwhile, in just about every other scene, Witch goes about the business of delivering paranoid thrills with the same deeply self-serious mien presented by the likes of Three Days of the Condor or Marathon Man, even as Atkins enthusiastically fists the yellow goop out of a robot's chest hole.

Hell, it might even be more severe than that: for those movies had more-or-less happy endings, or at least far happier ones than this shockingly uncompromising film.  It was enough to daze me into a state of misanthropic ecstasy when they actually killed the one kid.  Then that amazing finale comes—a brutal finale, so consistent with Carpenter's love of bleak reversals, and so terrifyingly wide-ranging in its dire consequences, that the only thing keeping Season of the Witch from being the second installment in an "Apocalypse Tetralogy" is the absence of Carpenter's name under the "directed by" credit.  So kudos to Wallace—but long live the king.

Score:  8/10


  1. Oh man am I overjoyed to see this one on your marathon list. It has its severe faults as a narrative, but as a bonkers 80's gumdrop, it's sublime.

    1. When did Ellie become a robot? Who cares! She's a robot, man!

      And when Tom Atkins yells, even the FCC must listen. Too bad one of the networks didn't. I want to see a Season of the Witch sequel. I bet it would be all Children of Men-y.

  2. I'm glad this review doesn't fall into the easy assumptions retrospectives seem to take: that audiences were either (a) too closed-minded to accept anything other than another Michael Myers slasher romp; or (b) too dumb to understand what an anthology was. I posit that the public could tell *exactly* what they were getting: a random movie with the name "Halloween III" slapped on it. I remember, before I had any idea what the main storyline was for the 'Halloween' series, being confounded by the ads for this movie that was inexplicably called 'Halloween III' (it doesn't even use the same logo!) despite looking for all the world like a standalone movie.

    1. Oh, yeah. I mean, I like the 1989 time travel movie Millennium pretty okay, so far as I remember. But if they released Millennium as Back to the Future Part III because Zemeckis and Gale had gotten sick of Marty and Doc Brown, I don't think it'd be worthwhile to blame people for rejecting it sight unseen. It's an interesting unhammered nail for a franchise retrospective, but not in any sense good business for what I think is reasonable to still call an A-picture (even if it is about evil Druids and magic masks).

  3. I must admit to having a real soft spot for this piece of work: if nothing else it has the most delightful villain in the entire franchise (I’d argue he’s a straight-up supervillain with an eccentric that reminds me of the late, great Terry Wogan in a way that really sells the ‘Wolf in sheep’s clothing’ aspect of the character): Michael Myers is a mightily effective monster, but he has all the personality of the Great White Shark (Which costs him Villain Points).

    Also, I think it a real pity that the notion of HALLOWEEN as an anthology franchise never took off (For my money a sequel to HALLOWEEN III which showed a new generation of children in a World without Halloween - following the ‘Silver Shamrock’ incident - challenged to bring back a little Trick or Treat in order to scare off the Malicious Spirits running rampant without the annual festival of disguises intended to spook the heck out of the otherworldly entities sneaking through when the boundaries between worlds become thinnest, even as a thoroughly traumatised generation of adults do their best to stop them).

    1. I largely agree with you on Myers, but don't say it too loud, people get mad and roll their eyes. I still don't understand why people fixate so much on Halloween '78.

      I'd watch a Season of the Witch sequel. Makes more sense than doing a forty years later sequel to Halloween where only Halloween happened, which still annoys me about Green's Halloween because Myers is just not a legend, or even ought to be a figure looming large in Laurie's mind, without Halloween II. Aggravating.