REVIEW: Hocus Pocus
Produced by: David Kirschner, Steven Haft
Written by: Mick Garris, Neil Cuthbert (screenplay), David Kirschner, Mick Garris (story)
Edited by: Peter E. Berger
Cinematography by: Hiro Narita
Music by: John Debney
Starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw, Jason Marsden, Doug Jones, Sean Murray, Charles Rocket, Stephanie Faracy, Larry Bagby, Tobias Jelinek, Jodie Rivera
Despite my love for this film as a kid, it’d been quite some time since I ever actually saw this movie from beginning to end. A few scenes here and there on ABC Family, sure, but the viewing was always interrupted by something else. Perhaps it’s just because the end of September is the beginning of a very busy month for my family – a close family friend’s birthday is at the end of September, and then there’s my stepdad’s and then my own birthday, and then you get into the “holiday season” along with two more birthdays thrown in for good measure, and it’s just rare that you sit down to watch anything you either have seen before, that is, unless it’s mandatory viewing – kinda like Shaun of the Dead or the Scream films are for me. However, for many, I do know that this is the movie they look forward to seeing every time this year, and, you know, I can’t really blame them. It’s a really fun flick.
The film begins in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts, with the kidnapping of Emily Binx by three witches known as the Sanderson Sisters. They wish to consume her youth and prolong their life. Her older brother, Thackery, goes after her, but he, too, gets caught and is transformed into a black cat and doomed to live the rest of his life with the guilt of having failed his sister. The witches are caught, however, by the townspeople and are sentenced to death, but not before they place a curse that would ensure their inevitable return, one that is oddly contingent upon a virgin lighting their black flame candle. The witches are hanged for their crimes, and one is left to wonder why the townspeople didn’t go seek out this black flame candle and destroy it, but never mind that.
Moving forward 300 years into the present (or, you know, 1993), we meet our hero, Max Dennison, who just moved to Salem from Los Angeles and is having trouble fitting in, complete with your doofus bully types who steal his sweet new shoes. It’s not without its perks, however, as he’s fallen in love with a girl in his class named Allison, who doesn’t seem to mind too much that he comes on a little strong for someone who just moved to town and barely knows her. Max is also not too enthused with the town’s obsession over the legend of the Sanderson Sisters, calling it just “a bunch of hocus pocus.” Allison takes Max and his little sister, Dani, to the Sanderson’s home, now a museum on Halloween night, and there, of course, Max, already awkward in life, inadvertently reveals himself to be a virgin when he mockingly lights the black flame candle, reawakening the three wisecracking witches, who must consume the life force of the children of Salem before dawn, lest they turn to dust forever.
Though Hocus Pocus isn’t without its dark overtones, most of the film stays largely lighthearted and silly, with just a tinge of macabre and very mild adult humor. The witches, played by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, are the lifeblood of the film, and the three actresses, Midler in particular, are a blast to watch, each with their own silly personalities Midler as the brainy, angry one, Parker as the slutty, stupid one, and Najimy as the fat, stupid one. They’re kind of like the Three Stooges mixed with the nasty, evil counterparts to the Three Good Fairies in Disney’s own Sleeping Beauty, come to think of it. Naturally, they know almost nothing about the modern world, which leads to a lot of fish-out-of-water humor – except for that one part where the producers realized Bette Midler can also sing and they collectively go all Genie from Aladdin and sing “I Put a Spell on You” on a stage in front of a crowd.
I’m not really complaining. This is far from a serious film – though, I guess if one looks hard enough, one could very easily see this movie as being a sort of coming of age story as Max falls in love and becomes the caretaker and protector of the little family unit that forms between him, Allison, Dani, and their pet talking immortal cat Thackery Binx. That’s really not the attraction, though. The film has a good sense of pacing, always on the move to the next gag, story development, or action sequence, but never trampling over the character development. The story also does a decent job of building up the world and the rules that the sisters must obey as witches and the ways the kids exploit them – which also led to a lot of fun reenactments and expansions on the story when my friends and I would pretend to be in some version of the movie as kids. The effects and makeup are all pretty fun, too, with the talking cat being pretty convincing thanks to a solid mix of real cats, animatronics, and animation (though often in the dark to hide any seams). Similarly, Doug Jones plays a resurrected zombie lackey for the witches, which naturally leads to a lot of humor involving his decomposition. The humor is rarely laugh-out-loud, but it’ll still leave you smiling even as an adult – perhaps even more since you can appreciate all the coming of age jokes that may have gone over your head as an innocent kid. I still find it remarkable that Disney allowed some of the things they did, including that whole business regarding the sisters’ devil worship and the sexuality of Sarah Sanderson.
The true highlights of the film are definitely the Sandersons, however, and the three actresses who play them. Without their campy, fully committed performances, the story would have absolutely no energy, the campy slapstick humor would fall flat, and our comparatively dull heroes would seem even duller (though Thora Birch as Dani could probably carry on a movie of her own with the right story). Hocus Pocus didn’t get the best reviews when it first came out, but it’s undoubtedly taken on a second life on home video and earned its status as a cult classic. From an artistic perspective, yeah, this could’ve probably aimed a little higher, but that doesn’t make Hocus Pocus in its final form a bad movie, per se. This isn’t a movie you watch because it’s an existential portrayal of teenage angst, nor will you watch it for its witty writing and carefully observed characters. Heck, you wouldn’t even watch it for its scares, even though it’s a Halloween movie. This is just a funhouse flick the whole family can watch together and be reasonably entertained by. Kids who grew up with it in the 90s, like me, are undoubtedly going to like this more based on nostalgia, but that’s really all the more reason to share it with younger generations, isn’t it? Luckily, it’s pretty bargain priced, even on Blu-Ray, and if you don’t go that route, it pretty much plays multiple times a day when October rolls around, too.
The Viewers Commentary Rating: 3 / 5