You know how they say sequels are never as good as the original? Well, the same can’t be said of soundtracks, or at least in the case of Halloween.
In 1982, the now iconic slasher film franchise gave fans Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a film that effectively got an entire generation of horror geeks’ panties in a big, chafing knot. Unlike the first two instalments in the series, originally brought to life by director John Carpenter, the third was suddenly minus Halloween’s indestructible villain, Michael Myers, making the controversial Season of the Witch the only film in the series’ decades-long run that doesn’t feature the psychopathic dead-eyed killer. But while that didn’t sit well with many fans and critics at the time, ironically enough, the soundtrack emerged as the most cherished and sought-after Halloween score in series history.
Halloween III is widely considered the last great Halloween soundtrack, and for good reason. For one, it was the final album in the series to be composed by horror-score dream team John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. And second, it stands as one of music’s most stunning pieces of minimalist synth exploration, made for film or otherwise.
Ditching all organic instrumentation, Carpenter and Howarth began working exclusively with synthesizers for Halloween III, transferring the film to time-coded videotape synchronized to a 24-track master audio recorder. The pair then watched the film as they composed the music live to the visual images, leading to a rapid scoring process and what Howarth called “instant gratification.”
To say the results were ahead of their time would be an understatement. Seeming as modern as anything cooked up by current-millennium synth wizards, the score is packed with fascinating opposites, sounding painstakingly slaved-over yet frighteningly simple, and coming across as dark, brooding and sinister while also bringing a twisted sort of delicate beauty. Factor in the slow, pulsing synth marches of tracks like “Chariots of Pumpkins” and the continually fascinating flickering bleeps of the main title, and it’s a seriously complex creation to wrap your head around, but then again, so is the actual film.
The original screenplay for Season of the Witch was penned by British screenwriter Nigel Kneale, perhaps best known for his cult sci-fi TV series Quartermass. Ditching all things Michael Myers, the script centred on an anti-capitalist Irish toymaker, Conal Cochran (played by Dan O’Herlihy), who embarks on an evil plan to restore Halloween to its Celtic witch cult origins, which just so happen to involve mass ritual sacrifice (here is where the children come in). Apparently, though, the studio wasn’t too impressed with the lack of gore in the original draft, leading to rewrites that eventually caused Kneale to drop his name from the film.
As a result, the writing credits went to first-time director Tommy Lee Wallace, a longtime friend of Carpenter who worked on his original 1978 Halloween film, as well as the filmmaker’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and The Fog (1980). In Wallace’s hands, you get a film where, like protagonists Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), you spend the entire movie with a pronounced question mark over your head, trying your damnedest to figure out what the hell is going on as Cochran starts rolling out his death plot in the week before Halloween.
Not to give it all away, but Cochran’s “joke on the children” involves Stonehenge, a “big giveaway” and some computer-chip-equipped masks (skull, witch and jack-o’-lantern), which, as we gruesomely witness, have the ability to turn kids’ heads into a heaving mass of spiders, snakes and various other creepy crawlies. Throw in some goo-filled robo guards — who have a thing for eye mutilation and blowing themselves up in cars — and it’s all much more Outer Limits than slash-’em-up horror — with the score’s futuristic synth workouts only adding to the sci-fi vibes.
If this all sounds a bit hard to swallow, it probably is for many movie watchers. More than a few critics wrote off Season of the Witch as a brutally flawed film, with one New York Times reviewer even writing, “Halloween III manages the not easy feat of being anti-children, anti-capitalism, anti-television and anti-Irish all at the same time.”
But the actual film’s quality — or lack thereof — has no bearing on the enjoyment of Carpenter and Howarth’s score. In fact, for some, it may be better to skip the movie altogether and head straight to the soundtrack, which, just in time for the trick-or-treat season, has been given a lavish vinyl reissue courtesy of Death Waltz Recordings Company (though the barrage of top-quality bonus tracks included on the 25th Anniversary Edition is well worth exploring).
But be warned, there’s also a joke on the listener: the spooked-out version of “London Bridge is Falling Down” that is Silver Shamrock’s jingle is likely to lodge itself in your brain permanently, leading to a lifetime loop of “Happy, Happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween... Silver Shamrock.” But then again, who doesn’t love a good joke?