Flashbacks to ‘93: Hocus Pocus

Most of us cinephiles have formative films, the ones that turned us from consumers into viewers and began the process of forming a lifelong love of movies. Mine was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I confess I’m surprised by the fact that, for more than a handful of people, Hocus Pocus was the gateway drug, or at least part of it.

I’m confused as to why I’m writing about this film now. Well, I know WHY, it’s because this is when it was originally released in the US in 1993, but that fact confuses me. Not only is it about three witches, Winifred, Sarah and Mary Sanderson (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy), being brought back to life 300 years after they were hanged in Salem, it’s set on Halloween night. I’m baffled by the fact that Disney released it in the middle of summer, instead of holding it as family friendly programming for October. Is that at least partly why the film seems to have found its audience more on video than in cinemas? Who knows, but it certainly did find an audience and it’s one that remains loyal and affectionate 25 years on.

Horror inflected films for children are always a balancing act when it comes to tone, and it seems that Hocus Pocus took a while to find that balance. Apparently it was initially bought as a darker and scarier script called “Halloween House”, before evolving into this more kid oriented form. The premise remains fairly dark but the approach is lighter than the summary suggests. Omri Katz, of Eerie Indiana and a previous subject of this column, the wonderful Matinee, plays Max, a teenager whose family has recently moved to Salem. Max has to take his eight year old sister Dani (Thora Birch) out trick or treating and they end up at the house of the Sanderson sisters when Allison (Vinessa Shaw), who he has a crush on, offers to take them. It’s then that Max frees the sisters, fulfilling the spell that would raise them when a virgin lit their black flame candle. The sisters, however, will only live for one night unless they can suck the life force from the children of Salem.

The film plays out as a cartoony version of a lost Grimm fairytale, with the broad performances and jokes about the anachronisms the witches find in the modern world, having been dead for 300 years, leavening what might be some scary ideas and images for younger kids. It’s a balance that the film largely strikes well. The gags are broad enough to appeal to adults without going over kids heads and there is a real sense of fun to Midler, Parker and Najimy’s performances, which is able to turn just a little creepy when required.

I often find that the problem with kids films is the kids. Child actors can be annoyingly shrill and precocious. What the 10 year old Thora Birch has of that as Dani feels appropriate to the part, Max is, like a typical 13 or 14 year old, annoyed and slightly embarrassed by his little sister. However, Birch is terrific in the part. The sense of fun she has when Dani gets the opportunity to embarrass Max in front of Allison is amusing, but she also gives an emotional core to Dani’s relationships with Binx, a kid cursed by Winifred to live forever as a black cat and, eventually, with her brother. As Max and Allison, Omri Katz and Vinessa Shaw are saddled with fairly thankless roles, but they do what they can with them. Katz does, at least, give us Max’s journey from finding his sister merely an irritant to stepping up when she’s in danger. Shaw is pretty and appealing, which is about all that is asked of her here, she’s largely along for the ride and providing exposition, rather than doing much to affect the outcome of events.

The stars of the show are the witches, and Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy all hit the same tone while delivering performances that are very individual. Najimy and Parker are almost pure comic relief; both dimwitted and slow to cotton on to the plans that Midler’s Winifred makes, as well as to the new things in the modern world, which Winifred often works out first. They both work pretty well on this level. Parker stands out for me, her song to lure the children (I don’t know whether she did the vocals herself) has a quality that feels soothing like a lullaby, but also creepy, but she also hits the comic timing perfectly. There is a wonderful obliviousness to Sarah as a character, she always seems to be off in her own little world until Winifred pulls her back. In that way It reminds me of Amanda Seyfried’s work in Mean Girls, and is often just as much fun. Bette Midler has said that the buck toothed Winifred is her favourite character she’s ever played, and you can tell. She has a grand old time hamming it up delivering lines that are both deliciously evil (“You know, I’ve always wanted a child. And now I think I’ll have one on toast!”) and quite silly (when told to go to Hell: “Oh! I’ve been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely.”)

Clearly Midler is never having more fun than when performing a cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” to hypnotise the town’s parents so she can lure the children. This sequence, and others that rely more heavily on physicality, are also where director Kenny Ortega’s experience as a choreographer serves him and the film well. Ortega would go on to huge success with the High School Musical series, but I think this film shows off his skills much better. He is blessed with a script that is much less corny than any of those films, but he marshals better performances from the cast, young and old. The background in working in dance probably also served Ortega well in working with Doug Jones, contributing a largely mute performance as Billy Butcherson, Winifred’s former lover, who she raises as a zombie. Jones is such an expressive performer, even through layers of prosthetics and without dialogue to assist him, but you have to imagine that Ortega understood how to capture that, thanks to his dance work.

I confess I haven’t quite the level of affection for Hocus Pocus that some do, but I enjoyed this viewing of it a good deal more than I had expected to. The gags largely work, the performances and the writing are fun, if not terribly deep, and it manages to find that fine balance and be a film adults can enjoy watching just as much as kids. I imagine that this movie will be a way that parents who grew up with it can share and instil a love of movies and an introduction to the mildest kind of horror film with their children, and that can only be a good thing.

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