Monday, November 14, 2011

"Halloween" (1978) and "Halloween III: Season of the Witch" (1982) Comparison

"Halloween III" is An Acquired Taste
by Silence Do-nothing

     Catching the movie Halloween III (1982) about halfway through on cable a few years ago, I initially dismissed it as cheesy trash. It had a novelty goods magnate whose enigmatic nature and cutting-edge reputation gave off a bit of a Willy Wonka vibe. That made it hard to take the film seriously when he is seen plotting to murder millions of children across the country with killer Halloween masks infused with the power of a stolen Stonehenge block.
     This past October, thanks to AMC's seemingly constant back to back showings of Halloween (1978) and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, I was able to watch it in its entirety. I have to confess that it has grown on me. While I'm now not quite ready to demand that it be placed alongside Citizen Kane (1941) and Seven Samurai (1954), or even dispute its cheese factor, I can't deny that it held my attention throughout. That's more than I can say for the original.
     I realize this is blasphemy to slasher fans, but I found that the direct comparison the channel's consecutive viewings afforded left the impression that Season of the Witch doesn't deserve its place as the black sheep of the series, nor the original its lofty status.
     The background music was the best thing the original had going for it. As with other John Carpenter movies, they're short repetitive pieces, but with memorable hooks that are very good at enhancing a scene's mood. Seeing as how the sequel has the music as well, there's no advantage in that department.
     Probably due to how quickly their slang changes, dialogue which rings true for high school characters can be tough to come by. So I shouldn't be too harsh on Carpenter for the clunky dialogue of the teens in the first movie. Still, they get the most screen time, so this can be a bit of a problem. I'm under no illusion that Kevin Smith is consumed with jealousy over the lines in Halloween III, but since it concentrates more on adult characters it manages to limit the damage. Given peoples' expectations of the genre, however, I will grant that an advantage in dialogue for a horror movie is about as useful as an advantage at throw-ins for a soccer team. It's nice to have, but rarely a game changer.
     Tom Atkins as Dr. Daniel Challis is #3's counterpart to Donald Pleasence's Dr. Sam Loomis. Unlike most of the others in these movies who serve as lambs to the slaughter, they both seek out to confront the villain, though each in his own way. The story needs Loomis mainly as a voice for Michael, since he can't or won't speak for himself. Dr. Loomis spends most of the film educating the authorities and the audience about the nature and danger of the evil. If only time were a luxury he had beforehand, he might have seen fit to organize a charity celebrity golf tournament to raise Michael Myers awareness. Dan's more hands on approach makes for a more dynamic hero.
     For myself, Atkins has the only performance of the films which is memorable for the performance itself. Jamie Lee Curtis' is remembered because it's Jamie Lee Curtis. In the scene where baddie Conal Cochran forces the captive Challis to watch a demonstration of the horrible death awaiting wearers of a triggered mask, he conveys the increasing waves of nausea and the ebbing of strength that accompanies witnessing something terrible. This projected the feelings of dread and horror better than any of the victims' high pitched screams in the original.
     The tipping point in the contest is that Halloween III has a better bad guy. Admittedly, it was tough at first to accept a Pol-Pot-like moral compass in the Willy Wonka-like figure of Conal. But a frivolous exterior could hide a rotten core. Notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy dressed up as a clown. Then why can't a mass purveyor of rubber dog doo and those fake plastic ice cubes with a fly in the middle possess a heart of darkness?
     Sure, Cochran stupidly does the cliche villain exposition where he gives away his plan to the captive hero, but a at least he can express a capacity for malevolent intentions. Michael Myers is just a relentless stabbing machine. It isn't clear if he even has a concept of right and wrong, because he never communicates anything. He is deadly, but so are crocodiles and downed power lines. They are things to be avoided, not necessarily hated. It's as if disaster expert Sam Loomis is continually exasperated when his warnings to locals of Hurricane Michael go unheeded. The more Michael resembles an impersonal force of nature, the less loathsome he is to outside observers and the less interesting of a villain he makes.
     Myers is at his most intriguing the first time he is seen as an adult. As part of his escape from a mental institution, he manages to drive away in a car despite having being locked away since the age of nine. Luckily for him, the car had an automatic transmission. I have to wonder if it had been a stick shift whether we would have been treated to a scene of the car starting and stopping a foot at a time as the engine repeatedly stalled in his frustrating introduction to working the clutch.
     I appreciate why fans hate the third so much, even if I don't agree with it. It really had nothing to do with the rest of the series other than the title and the music. Anyone who liked the Michael Myers character would be entitled to feel cheated.
     Halloween will always go down as having defined many of the conventions of the slasher genre. Horror movie directors often aspire to it. I can't imagine any filmmaker ever saying "My vision is to craft a Halloween III for the twenty-first century." I'm not saying that the third had as much impact on movies as the original. It's just that those considerations will matter more to horror buffs.
   Maybe the the crux of the matter is that Halloween III is a horror movie for someone who's not a horror fan. I'm okay with that.

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