Halloween III

“A Joke on the Children”: ‘Halloween III’ and the Horror of Advertising

As just about anyone involved has said in interviews, the original Halloween was incredibly fun to shoot. It was a simple, scaled-back movie, but something that everyone involved believed in. Everyone wanted to make that film and they all wanted to make it as great as possible. Because so many cast and crew members were just starting out, everyone had something to prove. It was only Carpenter’s second major film as a director, it was Jamie Lee Curtis’s first leading role. Sure, it was a job and Carpenter even moved onto the next job after perceiving it a failure following the initial reviews. But once it was a proven success, it changed things for everyone involved. Its continued success opened doors to many different opportunities. Of course, it also meant a sequel that virtually no one involved with really wanted to make. Given how good Halloween II ended up being despite that, it’s a testament to their collective talent that even those creators on autopilot could deliver a moody and effective slasher. Still, there’s no denying that the sheer creative passion that fueled Halloween had been absent on Halloween II. 

That held especially true for the original movie’s production designer and editor, Tommy Lee Wallace. Having worn so many hats on the first, with the aforementioned roles plus designing the now iconic mask and even playing the role of Myers in the classic closet sequence, Wallace was a natural choice to direct the first sequel. But, being the first to make the “been there, done that” standpoint clear, turned it down. Carpenter and Debra Hill returned to write and produce as they had done the first, with Rick Rosenthal stepping into the director’s chair. Carpenter famously credited the script for Halloween II to a long night and a case of Budweiser. But while the sequel hadn’t been the runaway success of the first, it had definitely been a success. 

With Tommy Lee Wallace agreeing to direct a third entry that promised to no longer focus on Michael Myers, he along with Carpenter, Hill and Dean Cundey crafted a perfect standalone entry that could not be more different in tone or subject than what had come before, yet still felt as though it stemmed directly from the same creative team. For a long time, Halloween III: Season of the Witch had a reputation as being one of the worst sequels in the franchise and it was unquestionably a financial failure at the time. Since then it has grown a reputation as an excellent seasonal horror in its own right, regardless of whether it has any connection to the overall Halloween mythos or not. 

Part of what makes Halloween III so fascinating is its incredibly different relationship to the holiday than the original film. Carpenter’s Halloween had a very narrow, small-town focus. It was about the town of Haddonfield and, more than anything, about Laurie, Lynda and Annie. The action primarily took place between two houses and while the holiday was baked into the concept and was certainly felt, it was largely in the background. Season of the Witch, on the other hand, is deeply entrenched in Halloween. It wallows in the holiday, not so much in the smaller, individual traditions as the first movie did, but rather in the overall salesmanship of the holiday as a whole. 

More than anything, Season of the Witch is not about the way we celebrate Halloween, specifically. It’s about the way the holiday is marketed. 

That starts, naturally, with the incessant commercial that plays almost endlessly throughout the film. The commercial is no doubt the one thing that instantly comes to mind when anyone thinks of the movie. With its catchy jingle and flashing logo, it is perfect advertising. Instead of tackling a single community, Halloween III is a much more direct satire of corporate evil and the commercialization of the holiday, something which gradually unfolds throughout its runtime. From the opening scene, the conspiracy surrounding the Silver Shamrock mask company is established, as we see a man running down the street holding a mask in his hand. Everything is a question at this point. Who are the men in suits who are after him? Why kill him after he’s transported to the hospital? Why burn themselves in the process? And things taken even stranger and stranger turns, from the reveal that these men are robots to the disappearance of Stonehenge that is set up very early on, yet the story unravels so concisely that these completely left-field story turns seem somehow natural. But even right there in that cold open, the one thing that is established is the commercial. A minute into the movie, we don’t know who any of these people are, but we know that these masks are important. The advertising is baked into Halloween III from that moment, and it’s used first and foremost on us, to make sure we recognize that repetitive jingle just as the plot begins to unfold. 

Our hero, Doctor Dan Challis, is a far cry from the largely innocent Laurie of the previous films. In fact, he’s almost her complete opposite. Challis is defined by his vices, pretty much from the moment we meet him. He’s a drunk doctor who flirts with nurses and is in that respect pretty terrible at his job, while revealing that he’s also a terrible ex-husband and pretty lousy father not too long after that. When he lands on a romantic interest after hitting on every other female character in the movie up to that point, he makes sure to ask her how old she is after he’s already slept with her once. (A move that another Tom Atkins character also happened to pull in The Fog). As a character, Challis is fascinating to watch, without a doubt. He’s interesting in spite or largely because of his flaws and Atkins leans into and accentuates those flaws perfectly. As a hero, though, he lacks a lot and really only has one specific saving grace. It’s one that’s also revealed very early on: he doesn’t buy his kids the masks they want. 

That’s the thing that immediately makes Challis the hero of the story, as subtle as it might be at first. He’s the first one we see who is prominently immune to the Silver Shamrock marketing scheme. It’s small, at first, he doesn’t seem to know the difference between one mask and another, then he’s openly irritated by the commercial, and these are really the only traits that need to be set up before he embarks on uncovering the larger conspiracy behind the mask company itself. 

Ellie Grimbridge makes a perfect partner for Challis on this journey, though it really is largely her idea, as she approaches things from an almost totally opposite standpoint. Her father, the man who was killed, owned a toy store that carried these masks. She knows the value of Silver Shamrock masks very well, and it’s that skepticism of the company as a whole that drives her to investigate whether they may have been involved with her father’s murder, as they no doubt were. Even though the story centers on Challis through pretty much the entire run time, Ellie is the one driving the plot. Challis is there to help her, because he feels bad for what happened to her father and because this is one horrific incident at his hospital that not only isn’t his fault, but that he has absolutely no answers for. What makes Ellie so interesting, though, is that she grew up around this kind of marketing and by all accounts speaks of it fondly. While certainly not a child, simply given her circumstances she is the target audience for Silver Shamrock and she’s still not swayed by the commercial or the promise of the upcoming “big giveaway.” From the moment we meet her, she’s already convinced that the company was—either directly or indirectly—somehow involved with her father’s death.

Unlike the slasher elements built into Halloween and Halloween II, Season of the Witch is largely a detective story, but one that is fascinating because it feels exclusively comprised of left turns. Even when it first becomes obvious that there is a conspiracy behind the mask company, the last explanation we expect is that one of the world’s largest mask making organizations used witchcraft to steal a rock from Stonehenge so that they could take pieces of it to instill into microchips in the masks, in order to use its ancient power to kill all of the children around the world when they tune into the big giveaway on Halloween night. Those probably aren’t the details that anyone would naturally anticipate and yet they are all threaded naturally throughout the film to the point that by the time we get to them, they—against all odds—feel almost natural. 

The genius of the actual plan at the center of Season of the Witch is, ultimately, the insincerity of it. With the way the commercial played every few minutes, it’s no surprise to learn that it’s naturally evil. For one thing, by the time we hit the third act it would be impossible to be on the commercial’s side. But this is where the horror of advertising comes into play. They want everyone to buy their masks, so they commission a catchy jingle to do it and make sure that they drive it into the minds of children and adults alike so that everyone is aware of it. Each commercial counts down to Halloween and to the big giveaway, where they say nothing about what is going to happen, only that kids need to tune in, so that they don’t even question it. The commercial makes Halloween feel important, as all seasonal commercials try to do. The main difference, of course, is that by and large in the real world these commercials don’t usually have any larger subtext than “please buy us over our competitor.” In Season of the Witch, on the other hand, the commercials serve the singular purpose of making sure every single child in the world tunes in to the giveaway for the sole purpose of killing each and every one of them, literally by rotting their brains from the inside out. It’s a metaphor so thinly veiled it might not even be veiled at all, but it works. 

It speaks to the modernization of the holiday, especially at the time, when the need for big name masks and costumes, as well as the commercials advertising them, were still relatively new. This was a time when you didn’t really trust your neighborhood for trick-or-treating anymore. Throughout the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s, no Halloween season went by without specials on the news about checking your kid’s candy and making sure you only went trick-or-treating to houses you knew and trusted. McDonald’s issued coupons so that you could get things there instead of risking trick-or-treating somewhere that might not be safe for your children. Stores started giving out vouchers for candy to be taken directly from them, the source, and not some creepy neighborhood weirdo. This was a paranoia fed by the media, largely unfounded, but was nonetheless prevalent all the time. In this era of Halloween, corporations perversely became the only names you could trust. Subtly or not, Halloween III serves as a clever reminder that even if they cater specifically to the holiday, corporations do not have your child’s best interest at heart. 

What’s truly clever about the modernization of the holiday here, though, is that it’s a ruse. After all, the origins of Halloween go back thousands of years, predating most holidays. These traditions were sacred, sometimes brutal, but held meaning at the time. Conal Cochran is a man who, by all accounts, seems to have lived through all that time, a witch or warlock who has seen what Halloween has become and is clearly not a fan. As he explains to Challis in what Cochran clearly believes to be his victory speech, he is only looking to bring the holiday back to its pagan roots with a sacrifice meant to make up for all the thousands of years without them, a sacrifice of all of the children to Samhain. And even then, for all his talk of beliefs and traditions, it’s not something he’s doing for explicitly spiritual reasons. He’s talking about genocide, yes, but talking about it through the lens of an old, folkloric trickster. He calls it a “joke on the children,” and his reasons truly appear to be no more complex than that. 

That’s fantastic, because it breaks down the guise of the modern, successful mask company on its last level. Without the commercial and the masks themselves, as both were used for magic so old it literally came from Stonehenge, there is the last illusion of the straight-laced businessman, the stereotypical charming old CEO at the center of the company. Everything about the Cochran presented to the public is a lie, and maybe even the private Cochran to a degree as well. His sincerity is well practiced, but completely fake, and he certainly doesn’t believe in the success of the company. The personality he projects to the public is bad enough, but what’s actually going on is so much worse, a man who wants to murder children for reasons that sound almost spiritual at first, but which he then clearly explains is for nothing but the simple fun of it. 

Cochran in some ways represents the random, chaotic mischief of Halloween itself, which makes sense when considering that at the end he is disintegrated by a beam emitted by the magic harnessed from Stonehenge, either disappearing into nothingness or returning into the same black magic that spawned him. His destruction by its power fundamentally cements his status and removes the last remaining shreds of his modern guise, finally returning him to the Old World. 

Still, if Cochran is the ultimate evil of Halloween III, advertising is still the weapon he wields and wields well, as even if he himself is defeated his plan seems to follow through successfully. Given the focus on the commercial throughout the film, it’s appropriate we not only end with it, but in the exact same gas station where we started. Here, Season of the Witch comes full circle. Instead of a terrified strange man holding onto a mask for dear life, we have Challis. The exception here, of course, is that we know and have seen everything that has brought this man down to this beaten, frantic state. 

In the end, a man who didn’t know the difference between one mask and another and who had only been mildly annoyed by the commercial at the start is now begging and pleading to turn off every station playing the Silver Shamrock giveaway. After all, he knows exactly what it means. His success is probably impossible. He can at best only save children locally by calling specific stations and asking them to take it down, but the giveaway appears to be at least national if not global. In the end, begging to get the giveaway off the air, Challis has learned everything. He’s no longer blissfully unaware, but passionate in his contempt for Silver Shamrock and his terror at what might happen if their plan succeeds. He’s no longer ignoring the commercial, but watching intently as he screams for it to be shut off. Instead of not thinking about this company or this holiday, it occupies his every thought. So in the end, as noble as his intentions have (finally) become, advertising won over even the man who seemed affected by it the least. 

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