Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Festival of Samhain

At one point in the first act of Livid (which I wrote about a couple of days ago), there's a scene where the main characters are accosted by a trio of trick or treaters wearing, respectively, a pumpkin mask, a skull mask, and a witch mask. Most of us (I saw that film in a kind of party atmosphere) sat up and took notice of the fact that this was a reference to Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace), the redheaded stepchild of the Halloween franchise. Halloween III has been reviled by horror fans for three decades now, and I understand it. I do. Horror fans, like most movie fans, are essentially conservative. They like seeing the same thing they saw last time when they shell out for a sequel, and filmmakers make fundamental changes at their peril. It doesn't help that the film isn't particularly good--though I'd stack it up against any of the other Halloween sequels in terms of the quality of the filmmaking. It IS daring though, and I love, LOVE the thinking behind it. Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill conceived of this film as being akin to an edition of a magazine. Every year, their reasoning went, they would come up with a different story on the theme of Halloween, kind of like a yearly anthology. Have you seen 2007's Trick 'r Treat? That film is Halloween III's spiritual descendent, unencumbered by the expectations of franchise.

The story finds Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) investigating the strange death of a patient that has been brought to his emergency room. The patient is raving about someone who is going to "kill us all". Soon enough, someone kills him. The killer destroys himself in a car explosion, leaving everyone with questions. Challis and the victim's daughter, Ellie (Stacy Nelkin), trace the murdered man's death to a novelty company, the Silver Shamrock mask company, who have lately been saturating the airwaves with their catchy jingle (sung to the tune of London Bridge). Their sinister owner, Conal Cochran, it seems, plans to use the masks to effect a mass sacrifice to the old gods of Halloween. He's stolen a cromlech from Stonehenge and he's using the magic of the stone to channel dark forces through a computer chip set onto the masks. The hills will run red with blood, he promises. It's up to Challis to stop it...

It should be obvious to anyone who has clicked on my blogger profile that I have some affection for this movie. To wit:

So, yeah. I dig it. Mostly for the jingle. If you've ever seen the movie, you remember the jingle if you remember nothing else at all. It's diabolically effective. But the jingle isn't the only thing to recommend the film. It also has some really nice widescreen photography, courtesy Carpenter's usual collaborator, Dean Cundy. It's amazing how much Cundy's prowling Panavision framings tie this film to Carpenter's cinematic aesthetics. Carpenter himself provides the soundtrack, which further ties it to the franchise. Best of all is Dan O'Herlihy's gleefully malicious turn as the film's villain. He relishes every line. He's entirely credible as a guy who'll turn the switch to kill millions of children to satisfy his red gods. I like the use of both contemporary Halloween culture and the delving into its history, too. The mating of old magic and contemporary science has a very Nigel Kneale-ish feeling to it. Kneale, it should be noted, wrote the first draft of this film and later had his name taken off of the final product. I mentioned that it felt like Kneale to my hostess, and she clued me in. I think she liked punking me. D'oh! Perhaps the second most striking thing about this movie is its viciousness. It doesn't quail at the idea of killing children. It relishes it, actually, as part of its apocalyptic vision. That vision is unique to Halloween III. It's not a usual kind of apocalypse.

The downsides? Well, much as I like Tom Atkins as a genre stalwart, I find that he's a limited actor. He acquits himself well enough as the frantic, Kevin McCarthyish hero at the end (the film is pointedly set in Santa Mira, California), but he has no chemistry with his costar. Stacy Nelkin, for her part, is kind of a cipher in this movie, even before her character is replaced in the plot by a murderous automaton. The scene where Challis and Ellie fall into bed together is possibly even more improbable than the demonic plot of the movie. It's a bad scene. The film has dated more than I expected, too, but this is just a matter of me getting old. I remember 1982 well enough, but not so well that I'm not taken aback by the changes in technology, styles, and cars. Time keeps counting I guess.

Time has been somewhat kind to this movie, it seems, because more than one of my movie friends has expressed some lingering affection for it. Almost all of them know the jingle, too. Happy, happy, Halloween, Halloween; happy, happy, Halloween, Silver Shamrock.

Current tally: 28 films.
21 first time viewings.

I should note that at this point I'm finished with the challenge. I've made it to 31 movies, though it'll take me a few days to write about all of the remaining films. I may watch another film or two before the end of Halloween, but I'm likely coming in at 32 or 33 movies. Down from last year, but a success none the less.


Chris Hewson said...

I think Conal Cochran's speech near the end is just awesome! I even put it in my Halloween (the day, that is) celebration post!

Unfortunately though (yeah, I always root for Cochran! haha!) thanks to the time zone plot hole, and what ads that Atkins got pulled off tv, the carnage might not have been super massive.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Yeah. O'Herlihy is great in this movie. That speech is terrific.