Witchy Wednesdays: Hocus Pocus

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Jessica Sowards

Five cups Disney.

One generous portion of the Divine Miss M.

Add a Sprinkle with the words “yabboes” and “dude.”

Stir in a musical number.

Throw in one dead man’s toe.

Mix all this into one movie and you have the recipe for family friendly Halloween classic.

Hocus Pocus debuted in 1993 and, after twenty years, has proven itself as a classic. As I have pointed out before, there were not many Halloween specials for kids during the 80s and 90s. Of course, The Great Pumpkin and Garefield’s Halloween Special aired every year. The Worst Witch could be found on HBO and The Disney Channel too. Back then, The Disney Channel was a premium station, by the way. The only other kid-centric Halloween show I remember was when NBC sold out American youth to show an M&M Halloween special. Today, channels like ABC Family host entire blocks of scheduling catering to family friendly Halloween programming with its “13 Days of Halloween,” which usually includes at least one showing of Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus was a safe movie to rent for the kiddoes while the teens or Mom and Dad watched classic horror movies deemed too graphic for the children. What was great about this film, though, was the fact that it really did offer something for the entire family. It slipped in a lot more humor for the adults than you would typically associate with Disney, so parents would not get bored. It also provided more than enough slapstick, child themes, and sentimentality for any red blooded kid to eat up.

The Sanderson sisters, Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) are hanged as witches during the Salem Witch Trials. They specifically target children using a special potion that when feed to children allows the witches to suck out their youth. They have also cursed teenage Thackary Binks, who tried to protect her sister from the three witches, to a life as an immortal cat. Before dying, the Sanderson sisters put a curse on the town. If a virgin lights the black flame candle, the sisters will return and they will have one night to wreak havoc on the town of Salem.  

Fast forward 300 hundred years. New teenager/virgin in town, Max Dennison (Omri Katz) is forced to take younger sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick or treating. While trying to impress the girl of his dreams, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), he drags Dani to a run-down museum dedicated to the Sandersons at their old house and lights the black flame candle. The sisters return for one last Halloween, recreate the essence of their youth-sucking spell, and are determined to drain Max, Dani, and the rest of Salem’s children. Luckily for them, Binx the cat lends a helping paw and an in-depth knowledge of the witches.

This movie really should not be as good as it is. The special effects are not the greatest and were not even the best for the 90s. The dialogue written for the teenagers sounds exactly as it is, dialogue written for teens by adults who mix in slang that they think is all the rage. Mainly, it’s Max’s dialogue and the dialogue of two bullies which are unintentionally funny. The bullies are complete stereotypes of the 90s, including a Vanilla Ice wannabe who has given himself a nickname and had it shaved into his hair.

There is another uncomfortable and cringe-worthy moment when Dani tells that her brother loves Allison's “yabbos.”

The best writing and lines are saved for The Sanderson Sisters. They are really being played as if the 3 Stooges were female. Winifred is without a doubt Moe. She is the brains behind the three and the leader. She never hesitates to elbow or hit the other two. Mary growls and sniffs like a dog, but also seems curious and child-like. Sarah is the temptress of the group. She is boy-crazy and can always be found flirting instead of paying attention to Winifred’s plans. Somehow, they are able to charm any adult they interact with, except for Penny Marshall in a hilarious cameo with her brother, Garry Marshall. As a kid, I enjoyed this scene, but it is much different to watch it as a 30 year old. It is one of the funniest scenes of the film, dripping with Halloween puns, but lacking cheesiness. It is a really fun scene and you can tell the actors and actresses are enjoying themselves and being playful.

If it were not for the performances of the Midler, Parker, and Najimy, this movie would quickly go from a Halloween favorite, to a forgotten casualty. If anything, Najimy seems to hold back. She could have been a much stronger comedic presence. She is very entertaining character actress and this was an early in her film career. Sister Mary fans sit in the audience, holding their breath, waiting for a killer joke to come through, but it doesn't. She does have some good “chuckle” moments, but she leaves you wanting more and doesn't really deliver.

This is my favorite Sarah Jessica Parker role. I am not a fan and have not watched many of her movies, but her performance almost wins me over. If Najimy holds back, Parker lets loose with this role. Her character just seems free. She is always flowing or “dancing idiotically.” Ironically, Parker may be at her prettiest in her role of a witch. I was also shocked at how talented she was at singing. She only sings brief snippets, but it is light and she makes it seem so effortless and easy that I really wish she had more opportunities to sing.

Bette Midler steals the show. That is all you can say. The character of Winifred allows her to be playful, but also showcase all of her talents. She sings, dances, and acts. Very few actors and actresses can offer the whole package like Midler does. She does not condescendingly half-ass her performance because it is a “kiddie movie.” She doesn't seem to intentionally trample the other performers like a stereotypical diva, it just happens. Some people are larger than life and their lights cannot be dimmed. Midler is one of those people. It cannot be helped.

Yes, there is some eye rolling dialogue and a scattering of plot holes (for example, how do the witches know about margarine and a driving permit, but not Daylight Savings Time?), and the effects are a bit tired, but my advice is to just sit back, relax, and let yourself be a kid again. The time you will spend on the movie is worth the performances of the witches alone.

When Jessica Sowards is not fighting crime, she can be found watching almost any movie that comes her way whether it be good or bad.  She is obsessed with The Muppets and knows a little too much trivia from sitcoms of the 1980s. 

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