The early-to-mid-1980s was the golden age of the independent video store; it dovetailed neatly with the halcyon days of the slasher film, a graphic Horror sub-genre. It was also the era of Just Say No, Satanic panic, and “very special” episodes. What latch-key kid of the day wasn’t traumatized by the two-part “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes? Danger was everywhere, especially for children.
The first video store I ever went into was called Star Video. It was in a strip mall, just a few stores away from the grocery store where I went with my mom on Saturdays when she shopped. The first videos I ever saw to rent were in the grocery store itself, where you could also rent a VCR, which came in a huge bullet-proof-looking suitcase. The VCRs were all chained together in a cabinet until somebody wanted to rent one.
Adjacent to the dairy case, itself a macabre display from which a gallery of missing children stared out from the sides of the milk cartons, was a magazine rack that stocked Fangoria and various wrestling magazines. Wrestlers used to bleed a lot in those days, and the magazine covers featured shots of wrestlers like Ric Flair and Greg Valentine with bright red blood matting their hair and running down their faces. The only time I got up the nerve to look inside a Fangoria, I was confronted by a still from Motel Hell (1980) of a man with a pig’s head wearing bloody overalls and wielding a chainsaw. I dropped the magazine in shock, the image burned instantly and indelibly onto my brain.
As great as it was, the magazine rack in the grocery store was but a mere hint of what was on display at the real museum of sex and death at the other end of the strip mall— the video store.
Among the other strange sensory stimuli, I distinctly remember the smell of Star Video. I now recognize that smell to be marijuana smoke covered by incense. As an elementary school kid, and a relatively sheltered one at that, I took the smell of the Star Video for granted, as just another of its exotic charms.
Empty VHS boxes faced out from shallow pine shelves from which hung paper tags edged with tin. One tag for Beta, one for VHS. The presence of a tag meant the video was available to rent in the corresponding format. Allured and disturbed by the display of over-the-top evisceration and mayhem, I walked up and down the Horror aisle ogling the empty boxes. The artwork on the boxes of the first three Halloween movies particularly captivated me. To this day they are effective works of design and marketing.
The box for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) freaked me out the most. The elongated silhouettes of costumed children set against the orange sky, taken together with the tagline, “The night no one comes home,” was, and is, frightening in its implication and relatability. My imagination roiled— kids like me were directly involved in the horror. One afternoon, I summoned the courage to turn the Halloween III box over and look at the stills on the back. I didn’t do this very often, having learned my lesson with the Fangoria. And as before, I was shocked, out of my depth.
A kid in a grey hoodie claws at a mask he is wearing that looks like a rotting jack-o-lantern. Because the image seemed to confirm my grim suspicions about the movie, the image mortified me. As it turns out, the empty VHS box is just about scariest thing about Halloween III. It is a gruesome and strange film, but not exactly scary. Of course, I wouldn’t find that out until years later when I actually watched it.
For the uninitiated, John Carpenter conceived of the Halloween movies as a series of individual stories, unrelated other than being set on Halloween. Only the first film was to involve the Michael Myers storyline. Made for under half a million dollars, it was a massive success and the producers ordered a sequel. Halloween II (1981), also a huge success, takes up where the original ends and was intended to be the very end of the Michael Myers saga.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is the first, and only, of the films to test the Halloween brand on the market without the now iconic Michael Myers. The film was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, who took over after original director Joe Dante dropped out.
The plot involves a sadistic plan by the head of the Silver Shamrock novelty company, maker of popular Halloween masks, to murder millions of children at once. The masks in question are imbedded with chips of a boulder from Stonehenge (that’s right). When children wearing the masks watch a televised Silver Shamrock broadcast on Halloween night, the chips will be activated and the kids will die in a bizarre and grisly fashion. Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) races valiantly to stop the broadcast and save the children.
In fits and starts, Halloween III offers vintage VHS-era Halloween atmosphere. The middle-class interiors, decorations, costumes, and clothes all situate the horror in a specific, relatable place, especially, I guess, for people in the suburbs. As in the original Halloween, the familiar becomes foreboding. Unfortunately, most of Halloween III plods along in a mask factory.
Displaying homage to the first Halloween film, in which characters watch Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951) on television, the original Halloween appears on television in the third film. This also gives director Wallace a convenient opportunity to co-opt the famous score of the first movie. Actress Nancy Kyes (aka Nancy Loomis), who plays Annie Brackett in the first two Halloween films, plays Linda Challis, Dr. Challis’ ex-wife in the third installment. This drives home the point that Halloween III is happening in a separate universe from the first two films. There are some knowing stylistic references to the first two films, such as characters stepping suddenly into frame a la Michael Myers. Even the third film’s effective, if disingenuous, tagline is a play on the tagline of the first film, “The night he came home.”
In terms of sheer aesthetics, the Spirit Award for Halloween III goes to the second unit crew, hands down. The vintage, early 80s Halloween ambiance of the film, where it exists, comes mostly from the establishing shots and cutaways of decorations and kids in masks. Toward the end of the film’s second act, there is a great montage of costumed kids trick-or-treating in the suburbs of various US cities (actually the San Fernando Valley). The beautifully shot and highly evocative sequence begins with the late afternoon sun still high and ends at magic hour with long silhouettes against a fiery orange sky.
The trick-or-treating sequence was shot by legendary cinematographer, Steadicam and camera operator, Stephen St. John. His extensive filmography includes cult-classic slashers, Graduation Day (1981) and Just Before Dawn (1981), as well as stone cold classics of my youth, Gremlins (1984), The Karate Kid (1984), The Goonies (1985), Explorers (1985), Cobra (1986), The Karate Kid II (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Lost Boys (1987). And that’s just scratching the surface. I was practically raised on images he captured for the screen and I had no idea. That audiences see the work without seeing it is the cruel paradox of a film’s shooting crew.
I reached out to Stephen St. John for comment on, what is in my mind, the best thing about Halloween III. He writes, “The poster for Halloween III was a frame from my camera on a 2nd unit day I did with Debra Hill directing. The show was anamorphic. They used the image uncorrected. The resulting ‘stretched kids’ gave the poster a certain edge.”
That “edge” is potent and unmissable. The poster, designed by Edd Riveria, was nominated in 1983 for a Saturn Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA, for Best Poster Art. Alas, the award went to a little film called E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982).
St. John writes fondly of working on Halloween III in general: “One of the great advantages I had on that project was one of friendship. I had known Tommy Lee Wallace and his wife Nancy Loomis for a number of years before Halloween III. There was an element of trust between us, trust goes a long way. This is lost to a degree in the new world of digital and instant playback. Shooting anamorphic magic hour on film with no video assist and scheduling dailies (rushes) after the job wrapped required trust. Magic hour and tragic hour sometimes overlapped.”
For my money, the second best thing about Halloween III is the title sequence. It is a sinister portent of things to come. Of it, St. John writes, “I also shot the title sequence on [Halloween III]. Tommy Lee had worked out the concept with John C. Wash and asked me to shoot it. The challenge involved extreme macro work of scan lines. Anamorphic lenses needed to be very carefully chosen to not go soft at the edges. A deep f-stop gave the raster lines some dimension and helped edge sharpness. It might sound simple and obvious, but the camera and the monitor had to be dead level.”
Unfortunately for its creators who were swinging for the fences, Halloween III received negative reviews and performed poorly at the box office. When the Halloween franchise was revived in 1988, so was Michael Myers.
In fairness, Halloween III was born under a bad sign. A third installment of a highly popular film franchise that has absolutely no earmarks of the other films, other than some self-conscious winking, is a dubious and even foolhardy undertaking. Tommy Lee Wallace was brave to have accepted the challenge, and he isn’t given enough credit for his effort or for tapping into the fears of a unique period in American culture, one which an FDA official in 1982 referred to as “psychosomatic mass hysteria.”
As the moral relativism and relaxed attitudes toward sex and drugs of the late 1960s and 70s begat the new conservatism of the 1980s, there was a fever on in the United States for protecting its children. The pendulum was in swing to the right a few years before Ronald Reagan’s landslide election in 1980, itself a symptom, rather than a cause of, such changing attitudes.
In the early and mid 1980s, the media stoked fears of organized sex rings and Satanic cults that were widely believed to be abducting, exploiting, and murdering children in alarming numbers. During a period when social welfare spending was increasingly unpopular, The Justice Department, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the newly formed National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) all used federal funds to stanch the spread of the “epidemic” of crimes against children. In his book Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America, Philip Jenkins states that such language was also used to describe social horrors “just like AIDS, just like crack cocaine, and similarly the product of the moral swamp of the 1960s and its aftermath.”
What better time for fears of child harm to surge than Halloween? Rumors and urban legends about poisoned Halloween candy and apples embedded with razorblades had slowly but steadily proliferated since the 1960s. One of the more disturbing shots from Halloween II (1981) is of a kid outside the emergency room of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital with a razor blade stuck in his lip. Such morbid and ubiquitous tales reached an apex in 1982, the year of Halloween III’s release. In 1984, sociologist Joel Best, who investigated reports of “Halloween sadism” determined that while such instances were generally unfounded they indicated popular fears regarding child safety and social decline.
Whether or not it was intentional, the elongated, silhouetted children of the Halloween III: Season of the Witch movie poster and video box recall a Danse Macabre. The Dance of Death is a type of momento mori, an object or artwork that serves as a grim reminder that you will inevitably die. Not that the people at the time needed reminding, but the Danse Macabre was a popular motif in medieval Western Europe. Those left alive after the Black Death and the Hundred Year’s War were looking for ways to express their understandably bleak cultural disposition. In the mid-1520s, German artist and printmaker, Hans Holbein the Younger, created a series of woodblock prints called Dance of Death. The prints depict a skeletal Death figure leading people of different types and classes, in various states of unpreparedness, away to the grave.
The famous final moments of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), set during the Black Death, depict the Grim Reaper, in silhouette, leading a parade of followers, single file to their deaths. As a kid, I had not seen Holbein’s woodcuts, nor had I seen The Seventh Seal. However, it is likely that I was, at least subconsciously, familiar with the Dance of Death through any number of other representations. It remains a ubiquitous theme, always adaptable to the present. If Grateful Dead t-shirts, such as those preferred by the Star Video staff, or old VHS boxes have anything philosophical or metaphysical to impart, it could be that Death is disconcertingly comfortable parading in costume. Happy Halloween!