Monday, July 16, 2018

Hocus Pocus

Premiered July 16, 1993.

In Salem Massachussetts, All Hallows Eve, 1693, Winifred "Winnie" Sanderson (Bette Midler) and her two witch sisters Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) cast a spell on a girl named Emily Binx (Amanda Shepherd) that sucks out her life force, making the witches younger and killing Emily.

Her older brother Thackery (Sean Murray) witnesses this and the witches transform him into a black cat, condemned to forever ruminate over his guilt at failing to save his sister.

The Sanderson sisters are subsequently captured and hanged.  Prior to their execution, Winnie casts a spell that will resurrect them on an All Hallows Eve in the future when a virgin lights their black flame candle.

Three hundred years later in Salem, another All Hallows Eve (aka Halloween) has arrived.  Teenager Max Dennison (Omri Katz) is having a tough time adjusting to life in a new place.  He and his family have just moved from Los Angeles and he's having a tough time fitting in.

Moreover, he has no use for Salem's witchy Halloween traditions, viewing the holiday as something made up by candy companies to sell more candy.  Despite this, Max is interested in his classmate Allison (Vinessa Shaw), who is very enthusiastic about Halloween and witches and isn't impressed by Max's cynical take on the holiday.

After school, Max's parents order him to take his 8 year old sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick or treating.  They eventually wind up at Allison's house, where her parents are hosting a very fancy Halloween festivity.

Allison talks Max and Dani into visiting the old Sanderson house, which is now a shuttered museum.   Naturally, Max winds up lighting the witch's black flame candle, causing the curse to come to fruition and bringing the Sanderson sisters back from the dead to steal the life force of more children!

The kids escape and steal the Winnifred's spell book.  Max, Allison and Dani gain an unexpectedly ally against the witches in the form of Thackery Binx, who, in spite of being a cat, can speak.  Binx vowed to stop the Sandersons if they ever returned and wants to help the kids defeat the witches once and for all.  Dani is quite taken with the Binx and decides to adopt him.

The sisters are uncertain what to make of Halloween and the modern world.  They are mystified by roads made of asphalt rather than dirt.  They smell children, but don't recognize them because the kids are dressed up in costumes for trick or treating.

The drawback of the witches' return is that the Sanderson sisters need more children's life force to brew the  potion that will keep them alive and young forever.  If not, they will die at sunrise.

The Sandersons chase Binx and the kids all over Salem, determined to get their book of spells and gain immortality.  Will the witches succeed and suck the life out of Salem's children?  Or will the unlikely quartet of heroes save Halloween and Salem from the Sandersons?

J.A. Morris says:

I'll start my review by saying that I like this movie, but I didn't see it until years after its release (I was in college in 1993 and I wasn't exactly the target audience.  It's become part of our annual Halloween viewing.  The witches are delightfully over the top and the kids are likeable and sympathetic.  I've owned several black cats, so I appreciate the presence of a talking black cat.

Bette Midler's performance of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" (featuring backing musicians dressed as skeletons) is a high point of the movie.  Midler later dressed as Winnifred during live performances of this song.

Sarah Jessica Parker also gets a nice moment in the spotlight to sing "Sarah's Theme," Sarah Sanderson's song that's intended to hypnotize children.

Garry Marshall appears in an uncredited role wearing a devil costume.  The Sandersons believe him to be Satan himself!  Any movie that includes Garry Marshall dressed as the devil is worth watching at least once in my book!

In a bit of stunt-casting, the wife of "the devil" is portrayed by Penny Marshall, Garry's real-life sister.

However, it's not a perfect movie and I can understand why it wasn't well received by critics or audiences when it was first released.  Hocus Pocus is a film that doesn't seem to know what audience it's trying to reach.  During the first few minutes we see a little girl killed and three witches hanged.

There are jokes about how the Sandersons can only be resurrected if a virgin lights their candle.  Billy the zombie is beheaded onscreen.   These contrasting tones sometimes took me "out" of the movie.

Still, compared to Christmas, there aren't many Halloween movies (that aren't slasher films), and I'm glad it's around.  Recommended, but the criticisms above keep me from giving Hocus Pocus a higher rating.

J.A. Morris' rating:

2 and a half jack-o-lanterns.

RigbyMel says: 

Like J.A. Morris, I am late to the Halloween party insofar as Hocus Pocus is concerned.   I was in high school and probably considered myself above live-action Disney movies at the time (animation was another story, but that's neither here nor there). 

That being said, I think I like the movie more than J.A. Morris does -- it's fun and funny and the dark touches are appropriate for Halloween.  It's not a movie for little kids, but I can understand how folks who were of the tween persuasion in 1993 or thereabouts would have latched onto this film.    As was customary with Disney releases, Hocus Pocus became a regular feature on cable TV and the film's following grew as a result of cable and home video.

Yes, the plot is a little bit silly at times, but the performances by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are comedy gold. The child actors do a fine job insofar as child actors go.  Young Thora Birch's performance as Dani is particularly strong. 

Moreover,  I have a weakness for black cats and am not at all surprised that many a millennial pet black cat has been named Binx.  I rather suspect that nostalgia plays an important role in the affection that people of a certain age have for the movie, but even 25 years later,  nostalgia is not necessary to enjoy this as a Halloween classic.

RigbyMel's rating:  

3 and a half jack-o-lanterns.

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