Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Screenplay: Tommy Lee Wallace
Cast: Tom Atkins (as Daniel Challis); Stacey Nelkin (as Ellie Grimbridge); Dan O'Herlihy (as Conal Cochran); Michael Currie (as Rafferty); Ralph Strait (as Buddy Kupfer)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #61
After Halloween II (1981) was meant to close the story of Michael Myers - currently, whilst a new project is underway, its production hell not the final girl that can kill him off alongside Jason Vorheeves - John Carpenter and the late Debra Hill decided to turn the franchise into a series of episodic films based around the Halloween season with different stories. Ironically, this is what American Horror Story as a TV series is doing with such success now, but they immediately started it from second series onward, not after two films like the ill-fated Season of the Witch did. Season of the Witch, whilst it's given a boost in name recognition, shouldn't have been part of the Halloween franchise - it has had last laugh in its critical reappraisal within the last decade but being part of the franchise both lead to its bombing at the box office, as audiences were not surprisingly confused why Myers wasn't in it, and because it feels jarring to be named a Halloween film when it's completely alien in tone and ideas. Whilst it has Carpenter's guiding hands over it, his powerful music composed with Alan Howarth and Dean Cundey's incredible cinematography painted over it, it should've have left its connection to the franchise to just the in-joke of the original Halloween (1978) playing on TV in scenes.
Barring this, I adore Season of the Witch as a grim, unsettling take on Halloween as a seasonal holiday both in its symbology and as someone who adores the holiday like many do. The premise is simple and works as a strange and compelling short story chiller - after a patient is murdered in his hospital of work, Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is pulled into a conspiracy with the victim’s daughter Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) that involves a novelties and toy manufacture’s series of Halloween masks and the sinister intentions behind them. As someone who loves even the tacky decorations and sweets of the season - the plastic skeletons, the novelty foods and biscuits etc - Season of the Witch leads to a nasty point, based on a single extended monologue explain the truly horrifying intentions behind a set of masks being sold, referencing the history of the likes of Samhain but perversely turned into an evil act of ritual sacrifice that's seen as right to do for the sake of humanity. Even if the satire about consumerism is broad, it eventually leads to on having to think carefully about what Halloween means, at a time in the year said to be when the border between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and how its macabre imagery is so codified against this nasty reality check shown in the film.
A large factor to why this works is the subconscious influence of legendary British screenwriter Nigel Kneale. Kneale, famous for the Quatermass franchise, and famous British television horror and sci-fi stories, was a fan favourite for John Carpenter, who got Kneale to collaborate with him on the original story of Season of the Witch. This however lead to a disappointing fallout to take place, Kneale objecting incredibly to the level of violence that the film had - not surprisingly considering the final work is surprisingly brutal in this area, with someone even pulling another's head clean off with their bare hands with a giant blood squirt, a level of violence rarely found in any of the non-Rob Zombie versions for the whole franchise.
Despite taking his name off the final script, his fingerprints are still visible from his original work. Having now seen a lot of his work, the world of Silver Shamrock, a novelty mask and toy factory who have their own tiny rural town, evokes the sinister rural town of Quatermass II (1955 for the TV mini-series, 1957 for the Hammer feature film version) and how its nebulous nature, everyone within part of a conspiracy, are visible to any stranger who keeps their eyes open about their surroundings. Kneale is also someone who is able to deal with occult and supernatural ideas with far greater nuance even if he was to rationalise them through science and sci-fi concepts like aliens, to the point that the far better use of Samhain and pagan references in Season of the Witch over any of the other Halloween films is likely influenced by his ability to rationalise even the strangest of ideas with real weight. The other significant factor, which is a trope very common in British horror storytelling, is the importance of objects having magical properties, not merely being connected to an evil other but in themselves as cursed and maleficent, objects which can be used as part of something else but, as much constructions with their own histories and character to them. (I.e. a certain whistle found on a beach in a famous MR James short story, for an American example with a wider scope the Necronomicon in HP Lovecraft's fiction and how merely reading the book is inherently a dangerous act for the reader from its history). The three masks in the centre of the film - a witch, a skull, a Jack O'Lantern - are objects that are revealed as eventual catalysts to a horrifying mass outbreak of death, with many children who will immediately die as a result of those whose parents bought them, their constant appearance throughout the film invoking a greater sense of character and threat from their apparent innocuous nature. Even the Silver Shamrock theme on television, which has become an ear worm for many viewers of the film, has a mantra like nature close to a magical incantation in how catchy it is (and especially with how a television sweepstake for the company will be the spark for the tragedy to start in connection with the masks directly).
That this all involves Stonehenge will baffle some, but another factor to my love of the film that has grown on this viewing is that Season of the Witch is also a strange, strange sequel for any franchise to have regardless of it having any connection to the first two films or not. It's also a strange film just by itself, a baffling little oddity to throw at a mainstream horror audience. I like the weird in cinema but I also find upon revisiting this film that weird horror films are actually a lot of effecting and creepy for me, their irrational content leading a sense of unpredictability and greater threat. There is the Stonehenge plot line, which could easily bring to mind Spinal Tap for many, but also the clockwork robot minions of the main evil which could come off as silly; but they add to the creepiness of the final work, the latter particularly playing into the fear one has for nameless thugs, who are played by actors without masks but with their identical haircuts and suits have a menace particularly in how brutal their methods of killing people are.
And of course the final scene is one of the best for any horror film to end on, the sting in the tale that cements its qualities. In the middle of a franchise of slasher movies, it's position now I'm going through the films in near exact is more perplexing, a curveball that you would rarely find in most franchises from then on, meaning that my love for it has to now be in context that it should've been an entirely different project for Carpenter and Hill that merely existed amongst their regular collaborators.