The hero in Halloween III is Dr. Daniel Challis, who’s played by the veteran B-movie actor, Tom Atkins. This is probably Atkins’ most well-known performance, but he also appeared in Creepshow (1982), Escape From New York (1981), The Fog (1980), Maniac Cop (1988) and Night of the Creeps (1986). Atkins is what they call a “character actor,” which means he usually only plays supportive roles and that he’s more or less the same character in each one (albeit with a different name). Mind you, there’s nothing “bad” about character actors; in fact, they’re usually very talented at what they do. Say you’re a gifted actor who can act the pants right off of Tom Cruise; but let’s say you also don’t fit Hollywood’s idiot standards for a leading man or woman. (Maybe you’re unusual-looking, or maybe you’re just “too old.”) If you get hired by any casting directors at all, it’ll mostly be just for supportive roles. Perhaps you’ll be cast as an eccentric drunk hobo; and if you play that part well enough, someone might like you enough to cast you in virtually the same role for a completely different movie. Perhaps you’d really like to play Hamlet some day, but since people only want you to play a drunk hobo (and since you have to feed your children somehow), you probably won’t stop accepting those roles anytime soon.
That’s what it means to be a character actor, baby.
Let’s hear it for Mr. Atkins!
For Tom Atkins’ part, he’s usually cast as a police officer or an alcoholic (and sometimes both). To this day, Halloween III is the only film in which he ever got to be the leading man. (I would argue that it’s possible to see him as the leading man in Night of the Creeps, even though he technically isn’t.) As a result of this casting decision, the character of Dr. Challis is a most unusual hero. Here in America, at least, most folks expect their male sci-fi/horror protagonists to be young, dashing and athletic; but Dr. Challis is middle-aged, visibly tired, and very much out of shape. He apparently lives and sleeps at the hospital where he works, but he’s also a divorced alcoholic who can’t stand his ex-wife or his kids (and who seems to have a history of avoiding them whenever possible). Given a choice between (1) spending time with his estranged children or (2) investigating a murder mystery with some hot trophy girl he barely knows, he doesn’t even stop to think about it; he chooses the second option immediately.
But lest I make Challis sound reprehensible, he really isn’t. At the start of the film, one of his patients – Ellie’s father – is brutally murdered by one of Cochran’s robot assassins. It bothers Challis to the core that this ghastly thing happens in his hospital on his watch, so he decides he’s going to get to the bottom of it (with or without any help from the cops). When he discovers that Ellie is just as obsessed with finding out what happened, they make a natural team. (The fact that they end up having sex is just an added bonus.) So whatever else Challis might be – an alcoholic, an ex-husband, a deadbeat dad – he is a doctor from first to last, and he takes this role very seriously. He is all about making people better and protecting them from terrible maladies, and when the chips are down, he does everything he can to save the world (including his family).
I love Dr. Challis because he makes a great deal of thematic sense as a character, both in terms of the earlier Halloween films and the entire John Carpenter canon. For one thing, consider the progression from childhood to adulthood that occurs in these films. In Halloween, Laurie Strode spends most of the film babysitting and then defending the kids from Michael Myers. In the second film, an injured Laurie is trapped in a hospital, which is a much grislier and more adult environment than that of babysitting. (She also attracts a potential mate, Jimmy Lloyd, who may or may not court her after Halloween II is all said and done.) But here in Halloween III, the protagonist is now a full-grown adult who works in a hospital all the time; furthermore, this protagonist must once again prevent an evil force from harming little children. Dr. Challis also fits an archetypal role that we see time and time again throughout much of John Carpenter’s work: the Man of Science Who Understands True Preternatural Evil, which is also seen in Dr. Loomis (Halloween), Blair (The Thing), Professor Birack (Prince of Darkness), Dr. Wrenn (In The Mouth of Madness), and Dr. Stringer (The Ward).
(Actually, it seems to me that John Carpenter really likes doctors and scientists; they’re almost always good guys in his films. Even Blair, who becomes a dangerous psychopath in The Thing, at least turns out to be right in the end. Compare this to how Carpenter usually depicts politicians, police officers, church officials and military personnel; with the exception of 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, people in these social categories are almost always shown as being ignorant, corrupt, or at least slightly crooked.)
Tom Atkins might not be a Christopher Lee or a Peter Cushing, but his talent really shines through in this role. (It’s all in the delivery; just wait until you hear him say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! It’s getting late, and I could use a drink!”) If you enjoy his performance here as much as I do, try watching Night of the Creeps. In that film, Atkins plays a similar character named Detective Cameron. He’s an alcoholic cop whose girlfriend was chopped up by a serial killer back in the 1950s. When Creeps begins, Cameron is on the verge of killing himself; but when he learns that his town is being invaded by brain-eating slugs from outer space, he grabs a shotgun and starts blowing holes in everybody else instead. (Just wait until you hear him say, “It’s Miller Time!”) In that one role, Tom Atkins even gives Bruce Campbell a run for his money as the Coolest B-Movie Action Hero Ever.
You heard the man!
“Twenty-three more days ‘till Halloween,
Twenty-three more days ‘till Halloween,