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.

Become a patron at Patreon!


  1. > Halloween III and currently rocking a Rotten Tomatoes score of 11%.

    Who cares what the prententious old wankers at that site think. No one cares about their crappy ‘reviews’ anyway.

    I really don’t see why people have such a difficult time understanding this
    film. I saw it when I was 11 years old and understood it perfectly. I wrote this
    outline, which I now show to anyone who says it doesn’t make sense. It makes
    perfect sense, and if you read the text below you should finally be able to
    understand it. Roger Ebert clearly wasn’t even watching the movie properly.

    Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), breaks away from the Michael
    Myers story of the first two movies, to take a fresh route into the
    horror genre. John Carpenter and Debra Hill had intended to make an
    anthology series, with a new Halloween story every year. Unfortunately
    due to weaker box office returns (the film cost $2.5 million but
    ”only” took $14.5 million at the USA box office) this idea was not
    pursued. This is a real shame, as it is one of the best, and most
    inventive horror films released in the 1980s. It suffered the same
    fate as John Carpenter’s remake of ‘The Thing’, which was also released
    the same year. Audiences didn’t want apocalyptic horror films with
    ambiguous endings (which both films had) and the two movies had to be
    rediscovered on home video and DVD/ Blu Ray, years later. Halloween
    III eventually became a cult film.

    The story is centred around the chairman of a toy/ mask making company
    named Silver Shamrock Novelties. Conal Cochran, an Irish settler, has
    made Santa Mira his home for the past few decades, and actively pursued
    his dream of making products for kid’s enjoyment. Following the release
    of his other products, which made him a house hold name (the Soft
    Chainsaw, the Dead Dwarf gag and Sticky toilet paper, to name a few). He
    now has three new releases for Halloween, which are a set of masks – a
    witch, a skeleton, and a pumpkin. The children are going crazy for
    them, and the plan is to get the masks into every home so that no child
    misses out on the fun. There is a surprise ‘programme’ which is being
    broadcast on Halloween night at 9pm, and the only way to find out what
    it is, is to tune in at the given time, but the only condition is that
    every child must put on their mask in order to find out what it is!!

    An old man (Harry Grimbridge) turns up at a gas station in Santa Mira,
    repeating the terrible phrase ‘They’re going to kill us, all of us’.
    He clutches a Halloween Mask tightly in his hands, before falling on
    the floor and becoming unconscious. The horrified clerk at the station
    drives the old man to the local hospital to get help for him. It is
    here that lead character Doctor Dan Challis examines Mr Grimbridge,
    and decides to keep him in one of the ward’s overnight before sending
    him home. Unfortunately Grimbridge has been followed, and during the
    night he is murdered at the hospital, with the killer gouging the old mans eyes
    out with his fingers and crushing his brain. The murderer then blows
    himself up in the parking lot, pouring petrol over his head and setting
    himself on fire.

    The following day the police and sheriff are baffled by the incident,
    and can’t understand what the motivation of the killer was. But the
    whole thing ends up being blamed on drugs, the killer is pegged as a
    lunatic, and the case is closed. This conclusion seems to please the
    police department, but not Doctor Challis who is interested in
    investigating more. After attending the funeral of Harry Grimbridge,
    Challis meets a young girl named Ellie, who happens to be the daughter
    of Mr Grimbridge. She agrees with Challis that something is not right,
    and together they decide to take a trip to the factory where the
    Halloween mask that her father was clutching was produced. This
    idea of a doctor investigating crimes seems to be derived from the
    TV show ‘Quincy’, which was on TV in 1982.

    Challis and Ellie go to the town as a couple – the old Mr and
    Mrs Smith routine – and pose as holidaymakers. The town is odd, has
    a seemly noisy bunch of townsfolk who don’t seem to welcome visitors.
    There is a six o clock curfew when all Santa Mira residents are required
    to be inside their houses with their blinds pulled down, and their windows
    and doors locked. The whole town is patrolled by CCTV, which is kept under
    surveillance at Cochran’s Silver Sharmrock factory. Challis bumps into
    a bum named Starker, who became a down and out when he applied for a
    job as a factory worker at the Silver Shamrock factory. Cochran turned
    him down and Starker has always held a grudge against him. He lives in
    the scrapyard and tells Challis that all the people from the factory
    have been hired from the outside, suggesting that cheap labor is the
    reason for the shunning of local people. Shortly after this
    conversation, Challis leaves and starker is murdered by two ‘executives’
    from the factory. They tear his head off and walk away.

    Challis and Ellie check into the Irish themed Rose ‘O’ Shannon Motel
    further into town and settle down for the night. The next door neighbor has
    been tampering with the badge of a Silver Shamrock mask and it kills
    her, releasing a blue energy beam and frying her face. Bugs and
    insects begin to emerge from her mouth as it becomes clear that she is
    dead. The following day, Challis and Ellie are introduced to Conal Cochran
    by a mutual acquaintance named Buddy Kupfer. The couple, along
    with Kupfer, his wife Betty and their son, take a tour of the factory to see the
    masks being made. Mr Kupfer asks for a tour of the Final Processing, but
    Cochran denies him the opportunity, stating that there are chemicals involved,
    and he doesn’t want to put anyone in any danger. Shortly after the tour Ellie
    spots her father’s car parked inside a garage in the factory grounds. Challis
    also sees a factory worker who very closely resembles the man who killed Mr
    Grimbridge and realizes that something is up. Ellie then attempts to get close to
    her fathers car to take a look, but a group of factory workers surround her, standing
    there silently, preventing her from going any closer. Cochran sees Buddy Kupfer
    looking concerned, and reassures him that they are doing this to prevent his trade
    secrets from being known.

    Meanwhile back at the motel. the couple finally decide that the town isn’t safe
    and Ellie tells Challis that she wants to leave. He agrees and goes to the
    office to make a quick phone call. Unfortunately, in the brief time he is gone
    Ellie is kidnapped by executives from the factory. Challis sees them and escapes
    as they corner him. He then makes his way back to the factory to get Ellie back.

    As he arrives, he is confronted by a factory worker, who grabs him and
    attempts to kill him. Challis then manhandles him onto the floor and punches
    him in the stomach several times – as he does this his hand goes right through
    the worker and into his skin. The blood is yellow and we finally know that these
    people are not human. Cochran then confronts Challis and explains the
    whole situation and what has been going on at the factory.

    Cochran has used his position as a toy maker and mask creator in order
    to orchestrate mass murder on Halloween night. It seems that being a
    famous salesman of toys and masks was not his main reason for wanting
    to be well known, after all. It turns out that he is an opportunist, a
    sick and depraved ‘man’ who wants to kill everyone, and will stop at
    nothing to make it happen. The satanic masks have been lined with the
    magical ingredients of small pieces of a rock stolen from Stonehenge.
    A dash of black magic and terror will ensue: A badge affixed to the
    mask (containing microchips from the Stonehenge rock) will correspond
    with with a flashing strobe light effect on TV. Snakes and bugs will
    appear from the masks, bite and suffocate the children and in turn,
    kill their parents too – and everyone else who happens to be watching.
    Challis gets a demonstration of what will happen on one of the factory
    TV sets, and Buddy Kupfer and his family are brought into a ‘test room’
    and killed!!

    Cochran, a 1000 year old warlock, is upset about the commercialisation
    of Halloween in America, and wants it returned to it’s Irish roots – a
    night of ancient sacrifice hundreds years ago, where the hills ran red
    with the blood of animals and children. The time has come, the planets
    are in alignment, and it is finally time for this to happen. Cochran
    has been biding his time, waiting, devilishly planning his genocide
    procedure for decades and will take great pleasure in seeing the after
    effects. The factory workers and are no ordinary factory workers either,
    and neither are the executives – they are clones which Cochran has created
    in order to get cheap labor and not only get the work done, but to keep it a
    secret so nobody suspects a thing. The whole operation is hidden behind
    the doors of ‘Final Processing’ which no one has to date, been allowed, except
    the factory workers and ‘executives’.

    The end becomes a race against time for Challis to escape and to get the
    programme taken off the air and to rescue Ellie. Unfortunately Ellie has been
    cloned by Cochran and her original body has been disposed of (if the Invasion
    of the Body Snatchers influence is anything to go by).

    The ending is ambiguous and we never finally know what happened to the world that night.

  2. Great review Linsey . One of my favourite Carpenter films this , along with the original ‘Ween & The Fog . So much so , that visiting the real-life Santa Mira is on my bucket list (along with the Point Reyes lighthouse from The Fog) . I think it’s also got the most epic soundtrack out of all the 80’s horror flicks , Carpenter was a brilliant soundtrack composer as well as Director , the films wouldn’t have been the same without his , what I call , “doom synth” !

Comments are closed.