Ginger Nuts of Horror
In my teens in the mid-to-late 1980s, my friends and I rented a lot of horror movies. These were the days of the corner video store, big clunky cassettes, Be Kind, Rewind, the western doors leading to the forbidden racks of skin flicks. The store I frequented had a two-page, double-sided list of the movies they carried. We’d sit in Steve Kendrick’s basement room, Steve on the recliner, me and Marc Berg on the couch, and gear up to get the shit scared out of us by vampires, werewolves, zombies, and mad killers. Most of what we watched was shlock, and that was absolutely fine by us, but here and there a movie would surprise us, would stifle our sub- (and pre-) MST3K snarkiness and jokes. Return of the Living Dead had a lot of wit in its screenplay (not to mention a jump scare that made Steve scuttle backwards three feet using only his rear end). Halloween was a nightmarish suburban scare-fest with the coolest visage ever- a white-painted Shatner death-mask. And Creepshow’s Horror Comic shtick had some genuine terror up its seaweed-snarled sleeve.
Halloween 3: Season of the Witch was one of the movies that shut us right up. It reveals its secrets slowly, patiently. A man chased by stiff, suited men in a sedan. News reports of a massive piece of Stonehenge…missing. A capering, sing-songy commercial that transfixes little kids and annoys adults. Those iconic masks: a skull, a witch, a jack o’lantern. (I wanted them when I first saw them at 16; I want them now.) A factory town with a façade like some old west city, crested by a great factory with a Shamrock logo on its smokestack, a town with a 6:00 p.m. curfew so strict that its residents pull in their cats when the eerie alarm sounds and the robotic voice suggests rather strongly that you limit your activities to the inside of your house. One cat is out after curfew…and a camera follows the animal’s movements.
And what of Silver Shamrock Novelties? A factory with its own stretchers and medical facility? A company responsible for “sticky toilet paper” and the “dead dwarf gag”? (A cheap-ass company, too, which manufactures android workers rather than employing the town drunk.) Silver Shamrock is lorded over by an enigmatic CEO with a neat coif of snow-white hair and a sinister smile, a Warlock, in fact, about to pull a very nasty prank indeed. “Our craft…” says Conal Cochran. “Witchcraft,” replies our hero, a drinking, philandering doctor with a face like a mountain side, a mustache like dry scrub grass. He’s there with Ellie Grimbridge, the pixyish (and very game) daughter of a shop owner who’d stumbled upon Silver Shamrock’s apocalyptic plan and paid with his life.
Halloween 3 has a casual nastiness and an evil as palpable as in the Omen franchise. Take the family of Buddy Kupfer. The mask-salesman and his wife and kid are vaguely, harmlessly obnoxious in a very ‘eighties way. Loud suits, tacky dresses, officious and silly, with a goofball kid. For the purpose of a “demonstration”, Cochran places them in a simulacrum of a living room, puts the commercial on, setting off the terrible trigger on the back of the mask – the evil disc with its Stonehengian sliver devours the child’s head, which splits open and unleashes a plague of insects and snakes that set upon his horrified and hapless parents.
After this grim scene, the audience sees trick-or-treaters in their doom-buttoned Silver Shamrock masks, trick-or-treating in Dayton, Ohio, in New York City, traipsing through a field with a smoggy L.A. in the background, then silhouetted in the glow of an Arizona sunset. And what about that ending, beautifully conceived? Can our hero stop the last of the three big TV stations from running the ad that will trigger an apocalypse of crushed heads unleashing deadly bugs and snakes? Stop it! he yells as the music builds and the orange, Atari-looking pumpkin strobes on the screen. Stop it! Stop it!
The reviews of Halloween 3 are almost uniformly unkind. It has an abysmal 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a site that aggregates movie reviews. “A dismal, unappealing slasher film,” the summary claims, with surprising and pissy inaccuracy. Ebert found a lot to despise, calling it a mish-mash of ideas from other, better movies. To be sure, there are some thudding failures in the movie, half-assed performances by lesser characters, a cheesy lair with clipboard-toting androids, rolling racks of masks, WarGames-era computers with ever-changing patterns of blinking lights, and AV carts straight out of some high school classroom. But the music and the atmosphere, the dark suggestions of the town and its factory, the inimitable John Carpenter soundtrack…they jostle the imagination and shake loose wicked things.
Famously, this movie jettisoned the villain from the first two flicks in the franchise. Without warning, the Halloween movies were to become kind of an anthology series ala “The Twilight Zone”, featuring a new story and new characters each outing. Some of the hatred cast in its direction was surely due to flummoxed expectations. The reaction was so reactionary that poor Michael Myers was resurrected, and then resurrected again. And again…and again…in a series of movies without half the inventiveness and horror of this unfairly maligned misanthropic gem. If that’s what the people want, I’m sorry for the people.
The original screenplay by acclaimed science fiction writer Nigel Kneale, by many accounts a subtler, psychological horror, was apparently scorned by Dino De Laurentiis, who owned the film’s distribution rights. De Laurentiis ordered a rewrite to add in more gore and violence, causing Neale to disavow the script. The result, in my opinion, works just fine…but I’d give my eye teeth to see a remake using Neale’s original script. Let’s say Ben Wheatley as the director. By god, can someone make this happen?
At any rate, Halloween 3 stuck with me. As I went on to discover and devour works by Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, Laird Barron, countless others, what resonated with me, what I always come bck to, are some elemental ideas I first saw in Halloween 3: a corporation with eschatological intent. The planets aligning, the world changing in a fundamental and historic way, precipitated by an ancient evil. This is piquant stuff for a teenager. I think of it as I write today; my evil company is Annelid Industries, Inc. Its purpose is shadowy, undefined, but it appears to involve the abduction of children, the driving to madness of adults via radio broadcasts…but to what end? That’s my secret.
Bizarre radio broadcasts luring dissolute souls into the dark woods of Western Massachusetts. Sinister old men in topcoats gathered at corners and in playgrounds. A long-dead sorcerer returning to obscene life in the form of an old buck goat. Welcome to Leeds, Massachusetts, where the drowned walk, where winged leeches blast angry static, where black magic casts a shadow over a cringing populace. You've tuned in to WXXT. The fracture in the stanchion. The drop of blood in your morning milk. The viper in the veins of the Pioneer Valley.
Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, a fragmented novel in the guise of a collection of short weird fiction and The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, an illustrated chapbook. His short stories have appeared in Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, Faed, and High Strange Horror. He is a member of the New England Horror Writers. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie and five cats. You can follow him on Facebook and visit his oft-neglected blog at www.matthewmbartlett.com.