When they were first released, Halloween II and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch were guaranteed a hostile reception, regardless of their individual merits, but for different reasons. By the time Halloween II came out in 1981, the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 original had already unleashed a slew of imitators in the odious “slasher” subgenre, and critics were primed to take it out on the sequel. No doubt a conventional second sequel would only add fuel to the fire, but Halloween III did worse than that, alienating fans with an in-name-only curiosity that thoroughly and perversely rejected any continuity with the previous films. But three decades later, both films look significantly better than their reputations suggest, reframed by the kind of lavish Blu-ray treatment more common to canonical classics like Rashomon than a pair of gobbling turkeys.
Written by Carpenter and his producing partner Debra Hill, and directed by Rick Rosenthal, Halloween II picks up right where the first film left off, with Michael Myers, the boogeyman of Haddonfield, stealing off into the night, despite being shot multiple times and falling from a second-story window. It’s a simple, ingenious conceit, affirming Myers as every bit the inhuman, unstoppable killing machine his psychologist (Donald Pleasence) rants about and extending the trauma of an evening that has already left Jamie Lee Curtis’ “Final Girl” wounded and exhausted. There’s a built-in relentlessness to Halloween II that’s key to its power, with Myers as a killer who’s evolved from man to myth, a threat to emerge from every shadow. It doesn’t matter that his movements are deliberate, even Frankenstein-ian—he’ll just keep on coming.
Without Carpenter’s visual wit, Halloween II too often lapses into murder-by-numbers—a scalding hot tub here, a syringe in the eye there—but Rosenthal and his ace cinematographer, Dean Cundey, give the main setting, Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, the expressive mood of a Dario Argento movie. Carted to HMH after sustaining a knife wound during her tussles with Myers, Curtis rests in a state of half-consciousness while her tormenter lumbers and stabs his way back to her. Meanwhile, Pleasance follows Myers’ bloody trail as he ambles out to the hospital, dispatching various security guards and horny nurses before finally getting to Curtis. The killings themselves lack imagination, falling back on the rote pattern of other slashers, but Rosenthal and Cundey—with no small assist from Carpenter’s unforgettable score—excel at giving the location itself a pervasive menace, with quiet hallways swamped in soft light and hard shadows. It’s a boogeyman's natural habitat.
A year later, Halloween III: Season Of The Witch offered audiences a Halloween without Curtis, Pleasance, or Michael Myers, and took them by surprise, albeit not in a way that made anybody happy. Writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace, who was the editor and production designer on the first film, had the idea of reconceiving the franchise as an annual riff on the theme of Halloween, rather than just the further stab-ventures of Michael Myers. But Universal didn’t get behind him and Halloween III never had a chance to get considered on its own idiosyncratic terms. Wallace made a Village Of The Damned or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers for the ’80s, an anti-corporate, anti-conformist satirical horror film along the lines of Larry Cohen’s The Stuff three years later. It just wore the wrong mask.
A week before Halloween, a man collapses at a gas station in northern California, clutching a jack-o-lantern mask and ranting about how “they’re going to kill us.” When a guy in a business suit sweeps into the hospital to finish him off—and then steps into a car and lights himself on fire—a doctor (Tom Atkins) and the victim’s daughter (Stacey Nelkin) start snooping around. They eventually uncover an evil plot by the makers of Silver Shamrock Halloween masks to brainwash those who buy the mask into doing wicked, destructive, murderous things. Halloween III could stand to be much sharper in every respect—it isn’t scary or even particularly exciting, and only the villains make much of an impression—but once the action shifts to the dead-eyed denizens of Santa Mira, the remote town that Silver Shamrock calls home, the film becomes a sly and creepy indictment of corporate engineering. It’s not what Halloween fans wanted—and Wallace rubs it in by showing a couple of clips from the original film on TV—but take the Halloween part away and Season Of The Witch is a standalone oddity worth considering on its own terms.
Key features: An incredible assortment of goodies on each, starting with Nathan Thomas Milliner’s illustrated covers and continuing with multiple commentary tracks and retrospective making-of features on both. (Executive producer Irwin Yablans’ emphatic attempts to distance himself from Halloween III are a particular pleasure.) Halloween II includes a separate disc with the television cut of the movie, which has scenes deleted from the theatrical, as well as a location tour, deleted scenes, and an alternate ending. Halloween III also visits the original locations and generally finds Wallace and others (Yablans excepted) eager to make a case for their orphaned little movie.