The Doctor Will Bone You Now: An Appreciation of Halloween III: Season of the Witch's Dr. Feelgood Daniel Challis, M.D
By Adam Howe
“It’s getting late. I could use a drink.”
— Doctor Daniel Challis
It’s the week before Halloween when toyshop owner Harry Grimbridge arrives in a panicked state at a North California gas station, clutching a Silver Shamrock Jack o’ Lantern mask and raving hysterically to the gas station attendant that ‘They’ are trying to kill him. Grimbridge passes out and the pump jockey drives him to hospital, shadowed by the sinister black-suited men pursuing Harry.
So in his introductory scene, we’ve established our unlikely hero – Doctor Daniel Challis – as an unashamed boozehound, a neglectful husband and deadbeat dad, who practices medicine while drunk. Pretty unusual protagonist for a horror flick. In an alternate movie universe, you could switch Challis with Denzel’s character in Flight — shit, Challis could probably fly a plane as well as he doctors.
Hysterical toyshop owner Harry Grimbridge is brought to the hospital suffering from shock, clutching a Silver Shamrock Jack o’ Lantern mask and raving about ‘Them.’ Challis chemically coshes the crazy bastard with 100mg of Thorazine and then stashes him in a room. After dealing with his one patient – hardly the big emergency that should’ve interrupted his visit with the kids – Challis tells Agnes he could “use a nap,” invites the old broad to join him, with a clap on the ass for good measure, and then retires to his office to catch a few Zs. He’s earned it.
The toyshop owner’s hot young daughter, Ellie Grimbridge, arrives at the hospital from L.A. Challis – whose sexual harassment of the nursing staff has clearly established him as a poon-hound – takes one look and likes what he sees. But to his credit, he allows Ellie time to grieve – a day or two – before making his move. The yokel cops – suspecting the toyshop owner’s murder has something to do with “drugs, probably” – allow Ellie to ID her father’s body at the crime scene, shattered skull and all; I’m not convinced this is standard police practice.
Challis remains troubled by the murder/suicide. Nothing like it has ever happened in his eight years of practicing medicine at the hospital. And maybe he’s feeling some guilt at being passed out drunk when the murder occurred? He pesters the hospital coroner’s female assistant, Teddy – with whom he has a sexual past that Teddy wishes was sexual present – for more information on the assassin’s cindered ashes. Teddy is reluctant to breach hospital rules, but when he turns on the Challis Charm and promises “dinner,” she is powerless to resist and agrees to do some digging. (Challis has unwittingly signed her death warrant; a Silver Shamrock robot assassin will later fatally lobotomize Teddy with a coroner’s drill; a case of Challis drilling a chick by proxy.)
Having done as much as he can, Challis retires to his regular dive bar and starts knocking back boilermakers and watching cartoons. He’s on first-name terms with the barkeep, Charlie; my guess is Charlie paged Challis with his bullshit work summons when Doctor Dan was visiting his kids. Ellie finds Challis in the bar. “The nurses told me I’d find you here.” The implication being that when Challis isn’t doctoring, he’s getting shitfaced in this dingy gin joint, with one of the nurses, or just drinking alone, bitching about his ex to the barkeep. Challis and Ellie hit it off and decide to do some digging into her father’s murder.
At the old man’s toyshop, a clue leads them to Silver Shamrock Novelties in Santa Mira, which connects with the Silver Shamrock mask that Ellie’s father was clutching when he was brought to the hospital. The amateur sleuths decide to travel to Santa Mira and poke around, sexual euphemism intended. Challis phones his ex from a payphone. Says he can’t pick up the kids this weekend. Important medical conference he can’t get out of. She doesn’t buy it. We’re beginning to get an inkling why the Challis’s marriage ended. Then Challis and Ellie set off for Santa Mira. Challis has bought a six-pack of beer for the road trip. It’s probably worth remembering that Ellie’s father has been murdered only days earlier. Challis is treating this like a vacation. In fact, it’s fair to say that Challis’s character motivation is to screw Ellie; that if he wasn’t so eager to jump her bones, what happens next might never have occurred.
Santa Mira is an Irish company town. (Ellie: “Irish Halloween masks?” Challis: “In California, you never know.”) The unofficial mayor is one Conal Cochran. A bog-Irish ex-pat, and one of the wealthiest men in America, Cochran made his vast fortune inventing practical jokes like the Dead Dwarf Gag and Sticky Toilet Paper – he’s the Donald Trump of whoopee cushions – before founding Silver Shamrock Novelties, the country’s number one seller of Halloween masks. This despite offering only a meager selection of three masks: Jack o’ Lantern, skeleton or witch. That’s it, kids. Pick one. Presumably Silver Shamrock’s aggressive blanket advertising campaign – with that fucking jingle – boosts sales.
The Rose of Shannon is a “zoo.” The moment Challis and Ellie check in, the place is assailed by guests. The Buddy Kupfer family – Buddy’s sold more Silver Shamrock masks that any other toyshop owner in the country; as a reward, he and the fam’ have been invited by Cochran to tour the facility, like Charlie visiting Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. And Marge Guttman, who has come to town to bitch about a fucked-up order. Marge claims this happens a lot. But what can you expect from Irish mask-makers? They’re probably drunker than Challis.
Snooping the motel guest register, Challis discovers that Ellie’s father stayed in town shortly before his murder. Knowing they’re on the right track, Ellie wants to start investigating right away. Challis tells her: “Whoa, slow down – I could use a drink.” That six-pack merely whetted his appetite. Staying overnight with Ellie in the Rose of Shannon, Challis offers halfheartedly to sleep in the car.
Ellie: “Where do you want to sleep, Doctor Challis?”
Challis: “That’s a dumb question, Miss Grimbridge.”
It’s worth remembering once again that Ellie is the grieving daughter of a brutally murdered father, that the corpse is barely cold.
But Challis bangs her and then heads into town for more booze.
Returning to the motel with a bottle of liquor, Challis is stopped by a drunken bum. Not a drunken bum with a doctorate, like Challis; this guy’s a skid row wino who looks like he belongs on the mean streets of New York City, not a sleepy burg like Santa Mira. Challis shares his bottle with the bum after the guy assures him: “I ain’t got no diseases.” (Challis seems the more likely disease-carrier, probably a nasty STI – if he fucks like he drinks, I’m guessing he doesn’t practice safe sex.) The bum starts ranting about the damage Silver Shamrock has done to his hometown. Complains Cochran refused to give a “local boy” like him a job at his mask-making factory. (And for good reason. The guy’s a degenerate alcoholic. At least Challis is a functional alkie.) Challis returns with the rest of his bottle to Ellie at the motel. Hopefully he remembered to wipe the wino-spittle off the bottleneck before pouring her a drink.
After badmouthing Cochran to Challis, the bum returns to his favela-style shanty and is decapitated by the same yuppie-looking sonsofbitches who murdered Ellie’s father.
That night, Marge Guttman, in the neighbouring motel room, starts screwing around with the microchipped tag on a Silver Shamrock mask – and is zapped in the face by a laser that makes a giant bug crawl out of her mouth. Challis and Ellie are awoken by Silver Shamrock medics carting off Marge’s corpse. (Female viewers, and gays, are treated to the sight of Tom Atkins’s ass as he pulls on his jeans; for the rest of the picture, Challis rolls commando.) Challis demands to view the body. “I’m a doctor!” Of course, no one’s buying that, despite it being true – Challis probably reeks of booze and sleazy motel room sex. Conal Cochran arrives at the motel and assures Challis that Marge will be treated at Silver Shamrock’s state-of-the-art medical facility. Every mask-making factory has one. It’s the law.
The next day, Challis and Ellie visit the factory. Joining the Kupfer family on their Cochran-guided tour, Challis notes that the Silver Shamrock security men resemble the hospital assassin, and Ellie spies her father’s station wagon hidden away in a garage. Returning to the motel, spooked, Challis takes another drink and suggests they get out of town – fast. “I think it’s time for the Marines.” He’s just being a wiseass. Unless he really believes this is a job for the military?
Leaving Ellie alone in the motel to call the cops from a payphone, Challis is unable to get an outside line. Ambushed by Silver Shamrock goons, he rushes back to the motel. Ellie has been kidnapped and taken to the factory.
Challis finds himself on the run from Silver Shamrock goons. Hopelessly out of his element – he’s just a doctor, after all, and a shitty one, at that – Challis literally stumbles around town before breaking into the Silver Shamrock factory in a brave, if ill conceived and ultimately doomed bid to rescue Ellie.
Challis sneaks around the factory searching for Ellie. Place is like a Bond villain’s lair. Finding an old crone, knitting in a rocking chair, Challis is horrified when he shakes her shoulder and pleads for help – only for her head to fall off and reveal she’s a robot. Next thing Challis knows, a Silver Shamrock goon with freakish strength attacks him. Fighting for his life, Challis slugs the sucker in the stomach, his arm sinks elbow-deep in the goon’s guts, yellow gunk spews from the wound, and Challis claws out a fistful of cables – another robot!
Challis isn’t cut out for this shit – probably thinks he’s having DTs – he becomes a little unhinged and is easily captured by Cochran and his Silver Shamrock robots. Great performance here from Atkins as Challis cracks up; channeling William Shatner, he’s teetering on his feet, eyes glazed, struggling to keep it together, as in Bond villain fashion, Cochran reveals to Challis his sinister plans.
Turns out Conal Cochran is an Irish-Celtic witch who plans to sacrifice the children of America to the Old Gods, and usher in a new Dark Age – or something. Using a stolen block of Stonehenge imbued with black magick power, and cutting edge 1982 computer technology, tonight’s 9pm Silver Shamrock TV Special will activate the microchipped tag on every Silver Shamrock mask, causing the child-wearer’s heads to melt and vomit bugs and snakes.
Cochran demonstrates on the unfortunate Kupfer family. They’re in a factory screening room. Little Buddy Kupfer is wearing his Silver Shamrock Jack o’ Lantern mask, and sitting too close to the goddamn TV while that fucking jingle plays and a computerized pumpkin strobes on the screen. Challis watches in horror as the mask melts Little Buddy’s head and spawns a plague of crickets and rattlesnakes that kill Buddy Senior and his wife. Challis loses what little sanity he has left as he realises what Cochran has in store for the children of America, including his own kids. (A rare display of paternal feeling.)
TV Announcer: It’s time. Time for the big giveaway. Halloween has come. All you lucky kids with Silver Shamrock masks, gather ‘round your TV set, put on your masks and watch. All witches, all skeletons, all Jack o’ Lanterns, gather ‘round and watch. Watch the magic pumpkin. Watch…
Cochran retires to make his final preparations for tonight’s kiddie holocaust. Challis is left tied to a chair in a locked room, wearing a Silver Shamrock mask that will melt his head and make it spew bugs and snakes when the Special airs at 9. He manages to escape, crawling to freedom through a ventilation shaft like Bruce Willis in Die Hard – except this is pre-Die Hard, so one can only assume the makers of Die Hard stole the idea from Halloween III: Season of the Witch. (And Tom Atkins would later audition for the role of John McClane. True story.)
Loose in the factory, avoiding Cochran’s robots, Challis makes a desperate phone call to his ex. He begs her not to let the kids wear their Silver Shamrock masks. Quite reasonably, she accuses him of being drunk. Says he’s jealous that the kids prefer her masks to the shitty masks he bought them. Challis displays a complete lack of self-awareness by damn near crying in frustration that she won’t believe him, despite having been bullshitting her throughout the movie and probably their marriage.
Challis takes it upon himself to save his kids, and America, and ergo the world. After rescuing the strangely silent Ellie – bitch doesn’t even thank him – Challis destroys Cochran’s computer set-up by pressing a few random buttons, which causes his robots to malfunction, his computers to crackle with 80s-style visible blue electricity, and the stolen block of Stonehenge to zap the witchy Irish mask-making motherfucker into oblivion.
Challis and Ellie flee the factory before it’s obliterated in a fiery off-screen explosion. No time for Doctor Dan to celebrate with a drink and a lay. He must still stop the deadly Silver Shamrock TV Special from airing nationwide at 9pm. (Cochran must have used witchcraft to circumvent East/West coast time zones.)
Quite why this magnificent motion picture failed to find an audience remains a mystery. But 1982 viewers refused to accept a Michael Myers-less Halloween movie, and it died a quick death at the box office. More enlightened modern cinephiles can appreciate the film as a neglected classic of the horror genre.
A character actor is rarely better than when given a leading role in which to shine; playing Doctor Daniel Challis, a gone-to-seed stud with a doctorate, an eye for the ladies, and an unquenchable thirst, Tom Atkins carries the picture with a wonderfully nuanced performance. If we rarely see leading men like Tom Atkins anymore – with his non-classic good looks, and mustache – then we rarely see protagonists like Dan Challis. A unique anti-hero, the character of Challis elevates Halloween III: Season of the Witch to the A-list of B-movies.
As a final word of warning, do not play the Halloween III drinking game and try to match Challis drink for drink; you will likely be left requiring medical attention…perhaps from a doctor like Daniel Challis.