An Annoying Autobiographical Pause: There was a de facto ban on horror movies, or at least “slasher movies” throughout my childhood, which is somewhat odd in retrospect, considering that we were allowed to watch pretty much all of the R-rated comedies we wanted to. Although, to be fair, I think most of the time my parents had probably forgotten exactly how raunchy, say, Trading Places actually was. At any rate, that is how I got to be almost 30 before I actually saw A Nightmare on Elm Street.
So, the few times that I did get away with seeing a verboten feature became all the more memorable (I remember seeing a network-TV edit of Jaws 3 when I spent the night a friend’s house when I was 10 or 11 and really feeling like I was getting away with something!), no matter how terrible the actual movie was.
Enter Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the universally reviled, Michael Meyers-free second sequel to the John Carpenter classic (Leonard Maltin gives it his no-stars “BOMB” rating and notes that it is “genuinely repellent” in his review). My sister and I accomplished more-or-less watching it (again, on network TV) by taking turns running interference with my mother, who as far as I know, is still none the wiser 25 years later.
Background, Part 1: After making a direct sequel to the original Halloween in 1981, John Carpenter and co-producer Debra Hill undertook to make a new, stand-alone Halloween-themed movie to be released every October. This plan was abandoned after Halloween III was a commercial failure, and Michael Meyers was brought back for an increasingly incoherent run of sequels starting in 1988.
Background, Part 2: A few weeks ago the AV Club reviewed Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray deluxe re-release of Halloweens II & III, which pretty much comes to the same conclusion I came to in re-watching the film as an adult: while not resembling anything like a good movie, Halloween III is just too weird to hate.
And buried in the reader-comments on the review were an awful lot of nerds fondly recalling the novelization of the movie.
Which is how Halloween III: Season of the Witch: The New Screen Shocker By Jack Martin Based On A screenplay By Tommy Lee Wallace: A John Carpenter/Debra Hill Production has come to be featured in this space. Because, while I am not exactly clear who is in the target demo for novelizations, I really hope it’s not anyone over the age of 15.
The Plot: Off the bat, I just want to say the nerds were right: the “book” manages to substantially improve on the movie. I would say that it is in fact actually good.
HWIII:SotW is a (shall we say) homage to Don Siegel’s 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Instead of alien Pod People taking over the minds and souls of the California town of Santa Mira, instead we have an evil joke and novelty company planning on using rubber masks to… well, electrocute the children of the world and fill their skulls with spiders. If you try to interfere with their plans, they’re going to send robots after you to rip your face open. Trust me, it makes marginally more sense in context.
Who is going to put a stop to this scheme? Alcoholic ER doc and Bitter Divorced Dad Dan Challis. He’s not really up to the task, although he is convinced to tag along with Ellie Grimbridge to Santa Mira after her father gets his face ripped open in the good doctor’s hospital and she tracks his last stop beforehand to the Silver Shamrock Novelties factory in Santa Mira.
Doc Challis and Ellie uncover all manner of horror in Santa Mira, including the fact that Silver Shamrock’s CEO has been putting microchips in the tags on the masks that will be triggered when children across all four time zones watch the endlessly-hyped “Halloween Horrorthon and Special Giveaway” on Halloween night… electrocuting them and filling their skulls with spiders.
And now, I’m sorry, but we have to talk about the most horrifying aspect of HWIII:SotW.
You know what I mean.
Yeah, go ahead, just try to get that out of your head.
Ultimately, things do not go well for Doc Challis and Ellie, and (like Kevin McCarthy in ’56) the film ends with Challis screaming into the phone that “YOU’VE GOTTA BELIEVE ME!!!” as ABC refuses to follow the two competing networks in taking the electrocute-y, spider-skull-filling commercial off the air.
So. How does Jack Martin improve upon this basic premise? (Not a mean feat considering that it seems his only other writing credit is the novelization of Halloween II. Edited 11/6/2012: a reader has kindly informed me that “Jack Martin” is a pseudonym for author Dennis Etchison.)
Mostly by front-loading the first act with a lot more paranoia about living in the dawn of the surveillance age, with UPC barcodes, video cameras, and the incessant bleep-blooping of modern life everywhere the (substantially drunker-than-in-the-movie) Doc turns. Especially that Silver Shamrock jingle, an earworm of a marketing campaign that is driving every adult in the book insane.
Martin improves upon the screenplay as much as he can, including making the missing piece of Stonehenge (IT GOES INTO THE MICROCHIPS TO MAKE THE SPIDERS!) into a jokey human interest story, continually tacked on to the end of the news day. But even he can’t do much with the “She was a robot all along!” twist near the end.
Sign It was Written In 1982 Department: In a scene that doesn’t appear in the movie, Doc Challis stops at a convenience store to buy gifts for his estranged children and browses through Space Shuttle Columbia and Star Wars-themed merchandise while the clerk watches a Made-For-TV movie called Shelley Winters: The Early Years. Also: he only has to call three networks to try and get the final Silver Shamrock commercial yanked.
Good Name For a Restaurant Department: Weenee Wigwam
Inside Joke Department: As in the movie, Doc Challis watches a promo for the original Halloween on TV at a bar where he’s drinking his breakfast. In the book he muses that Annie reminds him of his ex-wife:
The girl on the right made a derisive comment. Dark, New York, sarcastic passing for witty. A real ballbreaker. Hmm, he thought. I know the type well. Reminds me a little bit of old Linda. I’ll bet that’s what she was like at that age.
Both Annie and Linda are played by actress Nancy Loomis.