Synopsis: A trio of 1600’s witches from Salem, Massachusetts reappear in present day intent on killing. A trio of kids set out to defeat them. (Streaming on Disney +)
Not everyone wants to be scared out of their wits on Halloween. So here’s a non-horror flick that dips into millennial nostalgia.
Disney’s Hocus Pocus was released in 1993, in the dark days before every kid had a cellphone and society was ignorant of pumpkin spice latte. The movie was billed as a family-friendly comedy. Debatable on both counts. Let me make my case…
Hocus Pocus begins in 1600’s Salem, MA where we see that three witches have kidnapped a child, whom they murder. Soon thereafter, they are detained by villagers and hung. Right, very family friendly images. But, wait! The three witches, the Sanderson sisters, are led by funnywoman Bette Midler. The two sister witches are actors Sarah Jessica Parker ( Sex in the City) and Kathy Najimy (Sister Act). Both have nary a line, but engage in plenty of wide-eyed slapstick. So, ha ha, I guess.
I maintain that murder– of children, no less– and capital punishment are not appropriate content for kids. As well, it’s culturally irresponsible and potentially destabilizing of Disney to propagate the medieval notion that witches are real.
Back in the 1950’s, the great American playwright Arthur Miller reinforced centuries of rationalist thought in The Crucible. He let us know that it was the dark human heart with its jealous maraudings that drove the “my neighbor is a witch” accusations. But what can you expect from the studio that brought us Escape to Witch Mountain, Return to Witch Mountain and Race to Witch Mountain?
Hocus Pocus quickly moves past its killings-heavy opening and zooms into early 1990’s Salem, Massachusetts on Halloween. Max (Omri Katz) is the new kid in town and he’s having a tough time adjusting. I think he’s supposed to be like, sixteen years old, but his maturity level seems to be at the middle school level. According to legend, Leonardo DiCaprio was in the running for the role of Max. Poor Leo, he could’ve won his Oscar here instead of having to wait til The Revenant (2016).
Anyways, while the teacher in Max’s last class of the day regales the teens with local tales of the occult, the new kid moons over The Prettiest Girl in School, Allison (Vinessa Shaw) who is clearly out of his league. Also, she looks like a college student, so it’s weird when we later see them cuddling and sleeping in each other’s arms.
Max hates Salem because it is not cool like his former home of California. And adding to his angst, he is routinely assailed and robbed by a group of bullies reminiscent of Biff & his lackeys from Back to the Future.
Max has a little sister, Dani (Thora Birch, who will survive a childhood acting career and appear in American Beauty) whom Max dismisses as a pest while he bangs on his drum set — something the movers should’ve “lost” going eastward. Cute Dani, already costumed as a witch, tells Max he has to take her trick or treating because their parents will be at a town hall rager for adults.
Now, before the witches were hung, Bette Midler turned the brother of the girl they murdered into a cat as punishment; not for sounding the alarm on the witches’ murderous cavortings, but because he hollered at her that there wasn’t enough potion in the world to make her beautiful. Petty. Well the joke’s on her because now the boy is eternally a beautiful black cat. Oh, and Bette also uses her “any last words” time to prophesize that if a virgin ever lights the black candlein their house, she and her wicked sisters will return– a weird plot point that was obviously tossed in at the end of a long day in the writers’ room. Anyway, they hope to resume their serial killing of children so that they can steal their youth. Maybe they could just go the Madonna route and date much younger men to feel they have a clasp on their youth.
On Halloween night, Max does take little sis Dani trick-or-treating. They have to dodge the bullies who are almost literally stealing candy from babies and end up at a manse where a classy, but staid party is going on. Whoa! Beautiful Allison from school is there, dressed like a colonial American Girl Doll. Max blunders through a greeting and then his little sister laughingly informs Allison that Max likes her ya-hoos. Max and Allison are embarrassed. I think Dani was just having bratty fun because I seriously doubt that a high school-aged brother would tell his eight-year-old sister that he fancies a classmates’ breasts.
Somehow, uncool Max convinces Allison to take a walk to the old witches’ house, that had been a museum until it lost funding. Everything is quite spooky and we just know that someone will screw things up and that that someone will be Max. Guess which virgin lights the black candle, bloviating that the scary witches’ story is just a lot of —HOCUS POCUS! Thus begins a terror-filled night and a running joke about Max’s virginity. All great material for a movie marketed to children.
Bette’s character basically runs the movie from here on in with future Shoe Empress SJP and future voice actor Kathy Najami as worthy sidekicks. There are looks shaming jokes aplenty. Okay, they are “ancient hags” and “ugly chicks” but the ugly jokes directed at Bette’s character get a little awkward since it seems that all the makeup department has done is give her some prosthetic rodent incisors. Bette does look genuinely angry when the little girl Dani spits out at her: You’re ugly!
All sorts of weird mayhem ensues: Bette Midler performing at the packed town hall with SJP & Kathy N. as backup singers, a talking cat (best character), a reluctant zombie played by Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Doug Jones, and SJP driving a city bus while sitting on a horny bus driver’s lap. The weirdest gag by far features an old married couple at home, played by brother and sister directors Garry & Penny Marshall. They interact with the witches in what can only be described as a broad comedy fashion. He splutters one-liners while creeping around in a devil costume and she hoists herself out of a chair while grumbling until a yorkie chases the witches away. What the hell??
This is all a way of saying that Hocus Pocus is harmless 90’s kitsch for the over ten-years- old crowd and those not-triggered by representations of witches.