Nigel Kneale and ‘Halloween III’

How different was Halloween III from the original script as written by Nigel Kneale? Kneale biographer Andy Murray reveals all…

All these years later it still seems unlikely, but it’s true: during the early 80s, British scriptwriter Nigel Kneale wrote a script for the third of the horror film series Halloween for Joe Dante to direct. The film’s credits say otherwise, listing Dante’s replacement Tommy Lee Wallace as writer / director, but that’s only because Kneale took his name off the project in disgust after completing a couple of drafts, enabling Wallace to revamp his work. This left behind a tantalising, enduring question: what might Kneale’s pure, undiluted vision of Halloween III have been like?

Well, the truth is the basic shape of Kneale’s script was very much like the film that you know and he hated. Watch it with the sound off and you’d struggle to tell the difference for long stretches. His plot survives almost intact, bar some additions and tinkering. Even characters’ names are largely unchanged, with one corking exception. In the film, Tom Atkins stars as dissolute divorcee doctor Dan Challis, a character Kneale had named ‘John Challis’. Yes, the nerve-shredding tale could have centred on someone who shares his name with the actor playing Boycie in Only Fools and Horses.

What’s vanished from the finished film is Kneale’s dialogue. Virtually every line has been rewritten, rarely to its benefit, bringing us such stodgy nuggets as “I can’t go back to LA until I find out what happened to my father!”, “Why, Cochran, why?” and “I think it’s time for the Marines”. Kneale’s generally acknowledged as a fine writer of original ideas, but his knack for character and dialogue, while admittedly old-fashioned, is often undervalued. To put it bluntly, Kneale was at this point a widely-acclaimed scriptwriter of thirty years standing, whereas Wallace’s only professional writing experience was a shared credit on Amityville II: The Possession, released just weeks before Halloween III and currently rocking a Rotten Tomatoes score of 11%.

What’s perhaps most surprising is the sheer number of elements in the film which Kneale didn’t put there. He never subtitled it Season of the Witch, for a kick off, and as you’d expect from the creator of The Stone Tape, The Road and the Quatermass stories, he allows the dark mystery of the story to unfold gradually – and not so gorily. Kneale has Dr Challis turning amateur detective after the violent death of his patient Harry Grimbridge, hooking up with Grimbridge’s daughter Ellie to investigate Conal Cochran’s Silver Shamrock factory. In fact, Kneale shows Challis hypnotising the catatonic Grimbridge, unleashing poltergeist-like noises and activity – shades of Quatermass and the Pit here – until he drops dead. In the film, Grimbridge gets his head pulped by an unspeaking figure who turns out to be one of Cochran’s sinister drones (and, um, some kind of android. No, Kneale didn’t come up with that either.) Kneale did have Ellie set off to seek out the truth with Challis – and, um, become rather more than co-detectives – but this gets more screen-time, and happens altogether more swiftly, than in his script.

Possibly the big tonal shift between script and film hinges on Cochran’s besuited killer minions, which menace, pursue and slaughter anyone who threatens their boss’s ghastly plan. There’s none of this in Kneale’s script – Ellie and Challis simply infiltrated the Silver Shamrock set-up by and by – and apart from ramping up the constant sense of threat, the drones’ presence feels like an attempt to bring Halloween III more into line with its precursors. Michael Myers, aka ‘The Shape’, might be absent, but there’s still a bunch of silent, unstoppable killers stalking the protagonists to the sound of classic John Carpenter keyboard stabs. (So no, Kneale didn’t write in anybody being killed with a power drill down the earhole.)

Other examples of Wallace’s rejigging are minor. Kneale’s script places Silver Shamrock’s factory community in a town called ‘Sun Hills’, a name which strikes a fittingly upbeat-yet-bland note. The film, though, renames it ‘Santa Mira’, aka the fictional setting of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

So what’s the most obviously Kneale-y element of Halloween III? It’s not, as some have assumed, the standing stone (nicked, we’re told, from Stonehenge over 5000 miles away: “You wouldn’t believe how we did it!”. Well, quite). Kneale made effective use of stone circles in the Thames Quatermass serial three years earlier, but none were to be found in his Halloween 3 script. Possibly Wallace was inspired by Quatermass itself, but it certainly wasn’t Kneale’s idea to insert a chip of standing stone into each Silver Shamrock logo badge. In his script, they contain a microchip and a fuel cell, with the same gruesome effect on the incurable curious Marge when she tries to jam a hairpin into one.

Towards the climax of Kneale’s version, a regressed Ellie chucks Silver Shamrock logo badges at a TV showing the climatic advert, causing them to throw off deadly sparks. In the film, that’s replaced by the sequence where Buddy Kupfer’s family get a private preview of the advert, only for Buddy’s mask-wearing son to be transformed into a load of snakes and spiders. Memorable? Hell, yes. But does it make a blind bit of sense? Well, no. Perhaps Kneale’s take could be seen as lacking sensational punch, but it has some kind of logic to it. Whereas wearing a Halloween mask with a badge containing a flint of Stonehenge which can turn your head into some spiders, um, doesn’t.

The time frame is altered, too. Kneale’s script starts three weeks in advance of Halloween, with the traumatised Grimbridge unable to mutter much beyond ‘Samhain’ – that is, the name of the ancient Gaelic festival. (Neatly, the hospital staff promptly assume he’s called ‘Sam Haines’.) When Ellie and Challis head to the Silver Shamrock factory, Kneale shows them finding a ‘buyers’ blitz’ with the local hotel packed with toy store owners, including Marge and Buddy, here minus his doomed family, looking to score special wholesale deals. A fragment of this, the factory tour, survives in the film version, albeit in reworked form and budged later in the narrative, while the film opens with Grimbridge fleeing in dread with just – altogether now – ‘eight more days to Halloween’.

Telescoping the time-frame right down increases the sense of imminent threat, and losing Kneale’s grand hotel-based ‘buyers’ blitz’ must have trimmed a fair few bob from the budget. In the film, Ellie and Challis stay in a no-frills motel instead. Mind you, it beggars belief that major toy retailers – remember, Buddy is Silver Shamrock’s best customer – have come to the Santa Mira factory for Halloween itself. After all, you’d think they’d have a lot on.

Wallace’s film plays fast and loose with Kneale’s conclusion as written. The closing scenes, in which Challis flees the factory and struggles to prevent the final Silver Shamrock adverts going out, are largely intact. Before the escape, though, Kneale shows Challis confined in a small wicker basket hanging in the factory’s secure area, along with other poor unfortunates, because Cochran means to harness their dying life force in the manner of his Keltic forebears. Kneale didn’t have much time for horror films, but he had some admiration for The Wicker Man. Possibly it’s showing here. It’s not a huge leap to see Challis as an equivalent of Sergeant Howie, Sun Hills/Santa Mira as a variation on Summerisle and Conal Cochran as a charismatic Lord Summerisle-esque community leader.

Cochran – if we’re really splitting hairs, Kneale called him Corcoran – is a vivid creation. The scene in the film when he outlines his scheme to a restrained, bemasked Challis is the closest it comes to unalloyed Kneale dialogue. Even so, Cochran’s speech is a blend of two unconnected scenes from Kneale’s script, and it rarely runs for more than a few words before it’s been reworked. In the finished film, Cochran declares that the mass slaughter he’s instigating is a “big joke”, but he   insists that there’s “a better reason”, namely re-enacting epic sacrifices from the old times. Kneale undercuts all this, with Cochran explaining his motivation as simply “mischief”.

The story goes that, while in Hollywood to write a never-realised remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, Kneale had the first two Halloween films screened for him by John Carpenter. Kneale later declared, “It was pretty ordinary, rough stuff. I could do better than that.” Regrettably, he never got to prove it. Ultimately, Halloween III is a very curious film, equal parts weird modern fairy story and total tosh. What makes it interesting is that it endeavours to weld the contemporary scary movie formula to the more original, subtle approach favoured by Kneale. That notion fell apart behind the scenes, but deep within there’s still enough of Kneale’s curious conception – part Quatermass II, part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, part Wicker Man (but hardly any Halloween at all) –  for it to leave its mark.


Into the Unknown: The Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale’ by Andy Murray is published by Headpress, RRP £14.99. Buy it here.

 Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for TelevisionHe’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.

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