They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
In 1978, director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill forever changed the face of horror with Halloween. Made on a shoe-string budget, the film about an escaped mental patient who returns home and starts wiping out babysitters was a box office hit and helped usher in the slasher boom.
Per the Hollywood code, if something is successful, you must do it again. Carpenter and Hill co-wrote and produced Halloween II in 1981 — this time with Rick Rosenthal in the director’s chair — and a franchise was born. While not as successful as the original, Halloween II did well enough that Universal called on Carpenter and Hill for a third entry. The duo agreed, but only if they could take things in a different direction.
Instead of continuing to build on the first two films’ beloved villain, Michael Myers, Carpenter wanted to expand the franchise around the titular holiday. The plan was to release a new Halloween-themed film every October. Essentially, the franchise would have morphed into an anthology series with the holiday serving as the only connection between the films. Carpenter cohort Tommy Lee Wallace was to begin this shift with Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
Critics and fans had different ideas. Season of the Witch wasn’t a failure at the box office by any means. It racked up over $14 million on a relatively modest budget of $2.5 million. It even managed to place in the top two over its first two weekends in theaters. But that success was a far cry from that of its predecessors and was thumped by other horror releases from the same year.
“There are a lot of problems with Halloween III,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1.5-star review for the Chicago Sun-Times. “But the most basic one is that I could never figure out what the villain wanted to accomplish if he got his way.” Ebert understood that the baddie, toymaker Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), wanted to kill the world’s children, but he didn’t see what the real end game was. Ultimately, he chalked it up as another “low-rent thriller” that borrows bits and pieces from horror movies we’ve already seen. He did credit the film’s leading lady, Stacey Nelkin, as “the one saving grace.”
For Salem, Oregon’s The Statesman Journal, Ron Cowan shared similar sentiments as Ebert. He described the film’s plot as “confusing junk” and “virtually incomprehensible.” Cowan wasn’t a fan of the movie and made it a point to take an unnecessary shot at those that would willingly see it: “People who go to see movies named Halloween III: Season of the Witch probably deserve everything they get.”
Brent Northup decided to take on the horror genre as a whole in his review for the Longview Daily News out of Longview, Washington. Northup felt that Season of the Witch was just another example of horror’s attempt to transition from exploiting women to exploiting children, writing that “these opportunistic filmmakers have refocused their horrific guns on pre-adolescents.” Northup cited other 1982 horror films Poltergeist and Amityville II: The Possession as further proof of the genre’s attack on children and concluded that “Halloween III‘s few technical virtues (it’s considerably better than Halloween II), are totally obliterated by its corrupt values.”
Halloween III is “perhaps the worst movie ever created,” wrote Greg Williams in his review for the Sacramento Bee. Williams’ nine-paragraph review consists of three paragraphs solely dedicated to listing off thirty-two films that Williams’ claims Season of the Witch ripped off. It’s an eclectic list, including titles like The Thief of Bagdad, London After Midnight, and Carpenter’s own The Thing. If accusing the film of theft wasn’t bad enough, Williams added, “All of this lifting is done without any grace or style so that there isn’t one scene in Halloween III that’s at all memorable.”
While critics and fans alike in 1982 couldn’t wrap their collective heads around Season of the Witch, there has been a growing collection of horror fans lurking in the shadows over the years constantly talking the film up. And in recent years those numbers have expanded, with the film quickly becoming a cherished favorite.
Celebrating the film’s thirty-fifth anniversary in 2017, Patti Pauley of Bloody Disgusting listed “five reasons why Halloween III totally rules.” These include the excellent score from Carpenter and Alan Howarth, the performance of Tom Atkins and his incredible mustache, and the film’s “gnarly” death scenes. Pauley also wrote about how she had a “seething hatred for the unconventional third film” in her early years and didn’t grow to appreciate it until she was in her twenties.
Padraig Cotter calls the film “the most daring” in the franchise in a 2017 piece for Little White Lies. Cotter acknowledges that the plot can be a bit confusing but where the film “succeeds is in creating a thick air of dread.” Cotter also points out that Season of the Witch breaks the “unspoken rule that you don’t kill children in perhaps the most unsettling sequence of the entire franchise.” Despite doing this, the film isn’t heavily reliant on gore but instead “taps into the inherent eeriness of the holiday, incorporating its traditions and iconography into the plot in a way few other horror movies have captured.”
In a 2019 article for Den of Geek, Jim Knipfel argues that Season of the Witch is worth a second look. Michael Myers hacking and slashing his way through countless teens can become a bit tedious, Knipfel suggests, writing that he was “already pretty bored with the idea” halfway through the second film. For this reason alone, Knipfel welcomed the anthology-based approach for the third entry. “It’s an intelligent, surprising, and disturbing film,” he wrote, “with a number of nice touches.”
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a film that manages to nail the fun, playful spirit of Halloween while at the same time be incredibly dark and cold. And contrary to popular opinion, I don’t agree that the plot is all that confusing. Ebert was right in saying the villain’s plan is to kill all the world’s kids. His problem was looking for a reason. Cochran is similar to Michael Myers in that way. He represents absolute evil, and absolute evil doesn’t need a motive, because it is in the motive.
Season of the Witch also features one of the most clever taglines of all time: “The Night No One Comes Home,” which is a reference to the film’s plot to murder the world’s children on Halloween, ensuring none of them returns home, as well as a smart twist on the taglines from the first two films (“The night HE came home!”; “More Of The Night He Came Home”). Any viewers who were upset about watching a movie expecting Michael Myers and not getting him should have just paid more attention to the tagline. The answer was there the whole time.
Halloween III also acts as the perfect case study on the difficulties of delivering something new to the audience. We constantly hear film fans complain about how there are too many franchises, too many remakes, too many reboots, and so forth. People demand new and original stories. Well, back in 1982, John Carpenter and Debra Hill attempted to give us something new, and we were upset that it wasn’t the same thing we already loved.
With opinions on the film evolving over the years, however, maybe audiences just need more time to adapt. Perhaps going forward it won’t take us more than thirty years to catch up.