A missed opportunity
I wouldn't blame you for having shown up to the theater in 1982 expecting a third installment of the Michael Myers saga. Sure, Michael didn't appear in the marketing for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but it was fair to assume he might make an appearance. After all, if he's not going to show up, why call it Halloween III? Why not just call it Season of the Witch?
John Carpenter tried to end the Michael Myers story for good by blowing him to smithereens at the end of Halloween II. But since Michael survived the gunshots in the first film, it's difficult for the audience to view any death as final. Still, the choice to pivot to an anthology format was the right one as overexplaining or overexposing the character would only make him less scary. But communicating the format change to fans was never going to be easy. And the burden would fall on the next film to live up to the original. It would have to instill that same same sense of dread. It would have to spawn new iconic characters. And it would have to leave the audience with a similar sense of vulnerability.
And it very well may have done that not for a single missing ingredient: a victim to identify with.
The recipe established in the first Halloween film is this: a sympathetic victim (Laurie Strode) is thrown into a terrifying situation (babysitter murders) involving an iconic mask (Michael Myers) while a soothsayer character (Dr. Loomis) warns of impending doom, amplifying the suspense. If you remove any of these ingredients, you're not really making a Halloween film, you're just making a film about Halloween. And Season of the Witch checks nearly all of these boxes: The terrifying situation (a conspiracy to mass murder children), the iconic masks (the deadly Silver Shamrock Novelties masks), & the soothsayers (the investigating Dr. Challis & Ellie Grimbridge). But the children, who are chiefly threatened by the masks, are treated like props, rather than characters. And because these victims never directly engage with their own fate, the audience never has first hand exposure to the threat of the masks.
Instead, we're meant to experience the danger through the confused motivations of Tom Atkins' Dr. Challis. And I'm for an Atkins casting in nearly any horror film, but for god's sake act like you give a damn about your own kids, Tom! The fact that Dr. Challis is so transparently pursuing Ellie--the daughter of a hospital patient who was murdered for whistleblowing the mask conspiracy--than saving his own kids' lives really drains the tension from the central plot point, which is the pending murders. I guess the imminent demise of your own children is a real boner kill, so it just fades into the background of the film.
And this is the central mis-framing of the plot. It would be like if Dr. Loomis was only pursing Michael in the original film in order to get into Nurse Marion's pants, & they only mentioned the babysitters in passing as a necessary plot device.
"We've really gotta get to Haddonfield & save these babysitters! But let's get the hotel situation sorted out first, shall we?" --hypothetical Dr. Loomis
In the course of their investigation, Ellie & Dr. Challis learn that the masks' destructive capacity responds to a flashing TV commercial intended to be aired on Halloween night--the Horrorthon Big Giveaway at 9pm--delivering an unfortunate mess to living rooms everywhere. And yet, no children are made aware of this fact, so they're neither able to advocate for themselves nor fight to change their fate. Which is starkly different from the original Halloween, where Tommy & Lindsey are central to the film's primary conflict. Tommy even voices his concerns while Laurie is still in denial about the boogeyman. But in Halloween III, we only ever see children sitting inches from a TV screen, suggesting that they deserve some degree of blame for their own demise. This is the same role that sex plays in the original film, implying that the lack of self-control or awareness puts the characters at risk. But that trope served to set Laurie up as exceptional & intensifies her escape. In this film, there are no exceptional kids. Just boob tube zombies waiting like cows in line to be slaughtered.
Which is a shame, because the masks & the flashing TV commercial could've worked perfectly as a metaphor for something like childhood epilepsy. And the constant low level terror of knowing that encountering the wrong flashing commercial could send you into a fatal seizure is the type of fear that an audience could take home from the theater. The iconic image of the film could've been a young girl breaking down in tears, convinced her fate is sealed, like Laurie Strode in the bedroom closet in the original movie. But that aspect of the film is never explored.
Which isn't to say that Halloween III isn't a great sci-fi thriller on its own. The revival of the Samhain (pronounced sah-win) Festival is a terrific idea (courtesy of producer Debra Hill & original screenwriter Nigel Kneale), & the film is paced such that even the more absurd plot points (like the inclusion of Stone Henge) are more fun than folly in context. Dan O'Herlihy is terrific as Conal Cochran, & the decision to avoid rationalizing his scheme too much by overexplaining Samhain was the right one. The practical effects of the heads disintegrating into a mush pile of bugs & snakes are some of the best in the franchise. And director Tommy Lee Wallace pretty much nails Carpenter's tone. As an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one. And as a spiritual prequel to Carpenter's They Live, it works terrifically.
It just doesn't work as Halloween III.
In the final scene, Dr. Challis reaches a gas station, having uncovered the plot & escaped Cochran & his goons. It's nearly 9pm, & the deadly tv commercial is about to air. But he doesn't phone home to make sure his kids are ok. Instead, he phones the tv networks, pleading profusely to have the commercials removed from all channels. It's the film's finest moment, & a bold move to end on such an ominous note. But it's also another example of the film deferring to science fiction (and referencing Invasion of the Body Snatchers), rather than the Halloween source material. Which makes it a great film, but a non-essential Halloween franchise entry.