Monday, October 22, 2018

Hocus Pocus (1993) (Movie Review)

       Halloween movies and specials are all very common place these days. At least three primer during October every year, but for the kids from my generation (early 90’s), Halloween themed movies really weren’t all that common. Thus, the select few we had, we relished, and have stuck with us as small classics in their own right. Disney’s 1993 picture "Hocus Pocus" is probably the crowning champion of poorly received holiday films that have sense become classics thanks to devoted fans and a cult following. No joke, this film was a theatrical flop, bashed by critics, yet left its mark on a generation of young viewers. Now days, those of us who loved this film are sharing it with our own kids, and gradually, the appreciation for it has significantly grown. There’re cast reunions, cos-players, special anniversary blue-ray packs and fan films. Speaking personally, of all the Halloween movies I grew up with, “Hocus Pocus” was my absolute favorite by far. My little sister and I watched that film every October, re-enacted our favorite scenes, and we knew those catchy songs off by heart. All these years later, I’ve re-evaluated it as a grown adult, clearly see all the faults with it, as well as some questionable content, and probably wouldn’t even call it a “good” movie … but I still love this film with every fiber of my nostalgic heart.   

    We begin our story in 17th century Salem, where we see a young boy attempt to rescue his little sister from a nasty trio of witches called the Sanderson sisters. Sadly, the boy fails and is cursed into the body of an immortal black cat. While the witches are hanged by the town’s folk, they also leave behind a warning that one day they’ll return. 300 years later, another brother and his little sister aren’t getting along very well, and their night of trick r’ treating takes a sudden turn when the brother tries to show-off in front of a girl he likes. It doesn’t take long before his antics in the abandoned witches house lead to the three coming back from the grave. Now in present day, the witches aim to achieve immortality by draining the life force of the town’s youth. Our principle kids meanwhile come across the same black cat who was cursed all those years ago. With an enchanted ability to speak, the cat aids them on their new quest to stop the witches before sunrise, in which their curse would be fulfilled. What follows is a goofy all-night long Halloween adventure involving zombies, a magic book, and two broken families that are slowly coming back together through the experience.  

    Let’s jump right into the highlight of the film, which are our three kooky witches. Bette Midler absolutely shines as the lead Witch named Winifred Sanderson, and while some may remember her best for her roles in comedies like 1996’s “The First Wives Club”, or musicals like “Beaches”, I’ll always remember her best as one of my favorite Halloween villains. 
Her curly red hair, green attire, sharp fingernails and electrical powers have always stood out as iconic to me, and personally she’s one of my favorite villains from the 90’s. Every time she’s on screen, Bette Midler is just committed to the role and probably dose more then what the script even gave her. I love her energy, I love her range of acting, and I just love the theatrics of this performance. Clearly, she is having the time of her life, and the actress as stated several times that of all the movies she's stared in, "Hocus Pocus" remains her absolute favorite. Kathy Najimy plays the fat Witch, who's shtick is flying on a vacuum as opposed to a broom, talking out the side of her mouth and trying to be the heart of the group who brings the three together, in her own loony way. Personally, the funniest thing about her is just seeing the actress go from this film to romantic flicks like 2001’s “The Wedding Planner”. Rounding up the three is Sarah Jessica Parker as the clueless airheaded Witch named Sara. I think most people associate Sarah Jessica Parker with the TV show “Sex and the City”, but I’ve always loved her silly antics featured here. In general, all three actresses are in peak form, are constantly energized, and they take the barebones of their respected roles and crank it up to 90. Watching these three goofy talents play off each other is just like watching the Batman villains from the live action 60’s show. You know they’re not given anything especially clever to work with, but their all so committed to their parts, over act in the most entertaining way possible, and just disappear into their respected roles.  

     The talking black cat was another welcomed addition, and I’m so glad that he’s more serious in tone, which helps offset all the other goofy characters. It was also cool to just have a black cat present as a central character, which doesn’t happen to often in Halloween films. Sure, there’s other things in the media like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, “Sailor Moon” and “Kiki’s Delivery Serves” that all feature talking black cats, but I can’t think of any other specific Halloween specials that feature them. There’s also a zombie, who’s initially sent by the Witches to capture the kids, but ends up becoming a friend, which I always liked. He’s also a great design, that’s both creepy, yet humorous. Actually, both his colors and body movement always reminded me of the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz”.

    Now let’s finally talk about the human characters, who are a bit of a mixed bag. The older brother Max plays his part fine, but is a product of all 90’s teen clichés, and doesn’t leave much of an impression either. The girl friend Allison is very cute, but she’s also about as generic as they get, and is mostly just a boring lead. The only one who holds their own is the young Thora Birch as the little sister named Dani. For a child actress, she just throws herself into the role, and tries to make every emotion seem as genuine as possible. It’s hard to explain, but there’s just something about her performance that suggests a future Oscar star. Of course, that’s exactly the direction her carrier would take as she’d star in Oscar winning movies like “American Beauty”, and critically acclaimed films like “Ghost World”. Also, just a small side note, but her Witch costume is just like one my sister wore when she was that age, I guess I can’t help but feel nostalgic. With all the characters established, lets finally talk about the details that I either love or despise about this movie.

      The film is gorgeous, in fact it might just be my favorite looking Halloween movie I’ve ever seen. The atom scenery instantly puts me in the mood for the season. The majority of the film takes place at night, but it’s never dark, everything is illuminated, and there’s always color on screen. There’s also countless still shots in the film that I could print off, frame and hang as pictures on my wall. Most of the effects hold up surprisingly well, and blend in with the practical effects quiet nicely. Although there are some dated green screen moments, most notably a car chase that looks really bad. Still, the film makes up for it with memorable visuals. One of my favorites is a tracking shot of open plains with Witches shadows casted over them. I especially love all the little details, like all the trick r treaters, decorations, graveyards, costume parties, cursed objects and just about everything on screen that’ll make you think of Halloween. Also, the score composed by John Debney has always suck with me as a staple of the holiday. It’s a score that covers all the right notes from subtle and atmospheric to bombastic and wild. There’s even select moments where musical notes from the score remind me of the Batman theme by Danny Elfman.

       Speaking of music, let’s talk about those catchy as hell song numbers. Sarah Jessica Parkers “Come Little Children” might alienate some viewers, but I’ve always loved the duality of the song’s melody, as it’s both sinister yet entrancing. Of course, the big musical number is Bette Midler’s “I Put a Spell on You”, and it is absolutely one of my favorite Halloween songs. This is one of the key ingredients to any good holiday film, and that’s have a stand out song to give the film an identity. The song was already a staple of the holiday thanks to Jay Hawkins way back in 1956, but it’s Bette Midler who modernized the song and made it a house hold favorite for us kids from the early 90’s. I love the energy, I love the flare, I love the color, and I really love how the song was utilized in the film. It could have easily been a random song number shoved in to pad the runtime, but it’s actually a part of the witch’s spell to trap all the parents in an endless dance, leaving their kids unprotected. Actually, I love that both songs make for entertaining highlights, but also have a layer of danger, as their integrated into the witch’s evil spells.  

      Now for as much as I love this film, I'm not going to pretend that it isn’t flawed, or chalk full of questionable content. While there are definitely funny moments, largely thanks to the bouncy performances of our three leads, the script is unfortunately mediocre and never amounts to anything truly clever enough to match the talents of the cast. The film is also very goofy in nature, and is plagued with awkward moments that are clearly trying to be funny, but are really just irritating. The worst scenes involve two goofy bullies and an awkward police officer who might just be a guy in costume. There’re also some padded detours that I never cared for, especially this one scene when the witches confuse an old man in a devil costume for the real Satan, and they just waist time in his house. One of the odder elements of the film involve our main hero and how he’s frequently referred to as a virgin. Yeah, it’s almost a running joke, but it’s really just the word being repeated with no punchline, and it just feels weird. Some have criticized this film on the bases that it’s sending a bad message to teenagers, that they’re losers if they’re virgins and need to have sex asap. I never read quiet that deep into it, and really just chalk it up to another example of a weak script failing to make some kind of coming of age joke.   

     Now with that said, when it comes to questionable content, the big issue I have with this film is some of the witch craft on display. For the most part, the witch’s spells are all very flashy, and silly, but then there’s moments when I feel the witch craft gets a little too dark for what is clearly trying to be a family-friendly Disney movie. Strait to the point, this film begins with an abducted little girl getting her life drained to rejuvenate the witch’s youth. It’s kind of hard to right this off as a family film when it contains a little girl dying by means of witch craft. Now when I saw this as a kid, I viewed it no differently than, say, the old witch killing Snow White with a poison apple. It was just the villain doing evil things, and I excepted it knowing that she’d get her comeuppance, and everything would close with a happy ending. However, while “Hocus Pocus” certainly has a happy ending, the girl doesn’t come back to life the same way Snow White did, so I can imagine some parents being bothered by this.

     My only real defense for this is how it plays into the story arc of our main heroes, and in their arc are some positive elements. We had an older brother in the past who didn’t appreciate his sister, and failed to rescue her when she was in trouble. Now in present day we have two more siblings who aren’t getting along, and are doomed to face the same fate. During the climax, the little sister is once again taken prisoner by the witches, but this time, the brother sacrifices his own life force in order to spare hers. By the end, we see this once broken family come together, while at the same time the souls of the two siblings in the past are finally reunited after being literally celebrated after decades. So, in a nut shell, this film is about families coming together, and that to me is just enough to counter act some of the darker elements addressed before. Heck, even the witches play into the films theme as all three are sisters who can’t get along, yet gradually come closer together when hatching their malevolent plans. Oh, and speaking of the climax, everything wraps up in a cemetery, which is another terrific set piece. It’s also gorgeous with the sun rising in the background, and I love the concept of the graveyard being hollow ground that witches can’t set foot on. This pays off with one of my favorite villain deaths, with the main witch landing in the cemetery, transforming into a stone statue and exploding along with her sisters when the sun rises.         
So, being completely honest, just how well dose “Hocus Pocus” hold up after all these years. For me, I’ll always love this film, and look back on it as a special Halloween classic. However, it’s certainly a dumb film, with a mediocre script that could have been stronger in the hands of more talented writers. Plus, with the films suggestive content, I really don’t know how comfortable I’d feel exposing this film to little kids. I guess it really depends on the kid, or if the parents had a proper talk with their children regarding the material in the film. Without a doubt, “Hocus Pocus” is the text book definition of what some may brand as a guilty pleasure movie. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about liking a movie, but this is a case in which I freely acknowledge that it’s really not a good film, but there’s still something special about it that makes it worth repeat viewings. It’s kind of like 1990’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Movie”, where I know it doesn’t count as high art, but there’s still so much I love about the film that I just can’t bring myself to say anything negative about it. I’d recommend new viewers to proceed with caution before watching, and just know that some of the material may not be considered appropriate for some families. Having said that, I’m also overjoyed that the film has survived over the years, and has become something of a small Halloween classic for a new generation. Even if you wouldn’t call this a good film, maybe we can at least agree that it is one of the greatest Halloween guilty pleasures.

I give 1993’s “Hocus Pocus”, … oh … 4 stars out of 5.      

Sabrina the Teenage Witch - All her Halloween Episodes

Most kids go through a transition from watching cartoon shows, then to watching sitcoms, and while still aimed for kids, they still felt like the next phase of growing up. Most of the sitcoms I grew up with were re-runs from the 80’s or early 90’s programs like “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, which were then followed by a number of popular shows on the Disney channel that I probably don’t need to name. However, before any of that, the very first sitcom I ever actively watched and couldn’t get enough of as a kid was the ABC series “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”.
Although, when I watched it, the show had moved to what was formally known as the WB station. While I can’t say with a strait face that this series holds up as anything great, it was still a lot of fun to watch as a kid, and I can’t help but have some hidden nostalgia reserved for it. Sense the show revolved around a family of witches living in a suburban environment, it allowed for more cartoony visuals and bizarre plots that no other sitcom had. More to the point, the annual Halloween episodes always stood out from the Halloween episodes of other sitcoms. Most other shows would certainly get decorative, but with our Witch main character, and her talking black cat, these Halloween episodes had no boundaries for how over the top, goofy and drenched in the holiday they could get. I’ll admit, I haven’t watched anything from this show sense I graduated from elementary, but I’m feeling nostalgic, and with the new, darker Sabrina series premiering on Netflix this October, I felt the time was right to look back on this show. I don’t know if anything has held up, or if it was even that good to begin with, but either way, here are all seven Halloween episodes from the seven seasons of “Sabrina: The Teenage Witch”.   

Season 1: Episode 5 – “A Halloween Story” 

It’s Sabrina’s first Halloween while living with her two aunts, and she finds herself needing to be in two places at once. Her overbearing aunts want her to attend a family social, while her high school crush wants her to join his Halloween party. Desperate to make sure she doesn’t loose her crush to her school rival, Sabrina duplicates herself and sends her absent minded second half to be a stand-in, while she goes to the family social. While there, Sabrina finds herself at the mercy of her bratty cousin Amanda, who isn’t beneath shrinking people down and stuffing them in jars for her own sick amusement. 
Meanwhile, Sabrina’s school rival takes advantage of her duplicate and aims to ruin her good name in front of everyone at the party. For an episode from a TV sitcom, this is passable at best, but it flounders as a Halloween special. The holiday is only a backdrop to a situation that really could have been staged during any episode. However, the one redeeming factor comes near the end, where thanks to all Hallows eve, Sabrina gets to spend one hour with someone from the dead. Thus, the episode closes on an emotional note when she spends some time with her late grandmother. The villain Amanda would also become a reoccurring character after this, and is played by Emily Hart, the younger sister of Melissa Joan Hart who plays Sabrina. Ironically, Emily would also supply the voice of Sabrina in the animated TV spin-off show.  

Season 2: Episode 31 – “A River of Candy Corn Runs Through It” 

With a ridiculous title like that, you can probably guess that this won’t be a very subtle episode. In an effort to upstage the high school bully, Sabrina’s best friend sets up an all-out High-school Halloween party at Sabina’s houses … unfortunately, Sabrina was the last person to get the memo, and her enchanted house might not be the best place for a large group of mortal school students. Well, the show must go on, and she decides to go through with the party, as opposed to letting down her school friends. What she hadn’t counted on was the sudden arrival of talking furniture with grouchy attitudes, robed ghouls emerging from the closet, nasty terminates making meals out of the houses wood, a talking black-cat looking for attention, and a magic cauldron that’s bowling over to the point where the house is literally flooded with candy corn. 
As one would expect, all the goofy oddities end up making Sabrina’s home the ideal place for a Halloween party. Some of the goofier highlights in this episode include Sabrina’s best friend being the only one who shows up in a costume, another character being transformed into a living pumpkin, Sabrina transforming into a classic Witch costume during the opening credits, and there’s even a random guest appearance from the band 10,000 Maniacs. All around, this episode is an improvement over its predecessor, it puts the holiday at the center of the attention, and has more of the silly oddities I’d expect from the show. However, with all the goofy things going on, I feel this episode could have been a little funnier. However, it is here that I must congratulate Melissa Joan Hart, and her ability to carry the show. Her energy and deadpan line-delivery is just a perfect contrast to the silliness surrounding her. 

Season 3: Episode 56 – “Good Will Haunting” 

It’s Halloween again, and another family gathering is upon the Spellman family. Sabrina this time is spared from going to a boring family social, and decides to host a double date at her house, where everyone watches “scary movies”. However, Sabrina’s great aunt Bula is determined to make sure she has some spooky fun, and thus mails her an evil doll named Molly. Once the dull comes to life, she terrorizes the house guests, locks them in the house, kills the power and unleashes all the classic monsters like Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Bride of Dracula and the Wolfman. Even the Invisible Man makes a cameo as a delivery guy. Meanwhile, Sabrina’s aunts find out that their family party is in-fact a facade to lure people into an insane asylum that no-one is allowed to escape from. Thus, the chase is on as Sabrina and friends try to survive being trapped in a house with an evil doll and killer monsters, while her aunts try to escape a loony bin full of crazies. Strait to the point, this is my favorite of Sabrina’s Halloween episodes by far, and it might just be my favorite of the show. 

Everything about this one just screams Halloween, from seeing all the classic monsters, to a musical chase set to Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, and the episode is even book ended with the talking black cat Salem acting like a TV horror host in a gothic setting. The Molly Dolly also makes for a great one-shot holiday villain, and is a loving homage to Talking Teena from “The Twilight Zone”. She’s also voiced by the great Tress MacNeille, who’s best known for voicing cartoon characters like Gadget from “Chip N’ Dale Rescue Rangers” and Dot from “Animaniacs”. Sabrina’s loony great Aunt Bula is also a very fun one-shot character. Other note-worthy guest appearances include the late Gary Owens, as well as the “then living” cast members of the comedy show “Laugh-In”. All in all, even if you have no interest in this show as a whole, and only care to binge watch Halloween episodes from select sitcoms, this is one I’d recommend checking out. The jokes are great, the premise is great, the villain is great, the holiday is present in every frame, and there’s no shortage of talented guest stars.    

Season 4: Episode 81 – “Episode LXXXI: The Phantom Menace” 

On her fourth year of high-school, Sabrina decides its time to grow up, plan for college, and stop celebrating Halloween like she’s still ten years old. In short, her holiday plans consist of managing a coffee shop for the night, much to the dismay of her school friends who want to go out in costume and have fun. While it’s not uncommon for young adults to turn their backs on such things when they reach a certain age, witches don’t have a choice, as they need to celebrate the holiday or else Halloween is going to come after them with vengeance. Thus, all through the night Sabrina finds herself plagued by ominous sounds, creepy visions and an army of flesh-eating zombie’s hell bent on breaking into her coffee shop. Meanwhile, Sabrina’s aunts are dying for a good scare, so they use their time traveling clock to bring back none other than Edgar Alan Poe, to read them frightening tales. 
This is yet another one of the stronger Halloween episodes on the show, with lots of décor, a zombie epidemic, some hilarious sequences and I really just love the concept of Halloween coming after someone who stops celebrating. My favorite joke revolves around Sabrina’s early flashes of the holiday coming after her, which lead to some great moments. It’s also amusing that in order to beat the curse, Sabrina needs to have fun for the holiday, and thus throws the zombie army a party. It’s all goofy fun, but the main song of choice really should have been Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as opposed to Backstreet Boys “Larger Than Life”. This also marks the second and final time in which a Halloween episode was bookended by the talking black cat Salem, who this time is seen emerging from a coffin. All around, this is another fun one to check out.    

Season 5: Episode 103 – “The Halloween Scene” 

After years of being rebellious towards Halloween, Sabrina has finally excepted that the holiday is in her blood, and it’s time to really celebrate … besides, best to avoid another zombie crisis. So, the plan is simple, while her aunts are away, Sabrina will transform their house into the biggest Halloween party ever. Just to liven things up, Sabrina brings the Frankenstein monster, a cyclops and several other monsters to the event. It’s all good fun at first, but the monsters have connections, and soon the house is flooded with ghouls, and it’s only then Sabrina realizes that by the time the party ends … there probably won’t be much of a house left for their aunts. 
Following after two solid Halloween episodes, this one comes off as very mediocre, and contains one too many familiar retreads. Sabrina hosting a party at her aunts … seen it, Frankenstein and various monsters run amuck in the house … seen that before too, a Jack O’ Lantern comes to life to make wise cracks … well, I guess that’s something new. To be fair, there are some select little highlights. I like when they return Frankenstein home and everything goes B&W to represent a classic monster movie, plus a special appearance from The Bride of Frankenstein is a welcome bonus. On that note, this is at least a very decorative episode, with every character in costume, and the wild party at least conveys something of a holiday atmosphere. Still, not a very eventful or funny outing when compared to some of the others.  

Season 6: Episode 120 – “Really Big Season Opener” 

While the following season seven wouldn’t have a Halloween episode, season six gives us two, and it all starts with the premier. Sabrina and her college roommates are all putting together a horror movie about pretty cheerleaders and one sinister vampire. Everything for once seems to be going great, the production is good, the sets are solid, the script is finalized and the cast is complete ... that is with the one exception of their leading vampire. Thus, a casting call is put out for the right prince of darkness, but everyone turns out a dud. Then out of the blue comes one Vladimir Kortensky, who is absolutely ideal for the part. Unfortunately, the cast and crew got more than they bargained for, as Vlad turns out to be a real vampire who’s dead set on draining every last ounce of blood from the group. To make matters worse, this vampire is immune to magic, leaving Sabrina with her strengths and wits to fight him off and protect her friends. Everything builds to an epic fight to the death between Sabrina and Vlad. Seeing our hero battle a vampire while in her skimpy cheerleading attire is every bit as goofy and as awesome as it sounds. 
Full on action sequences rarely happen in the show, so it makes for a cool highlight. Also, this battle frequently spoofs “The Matrix”, and I distinctly remember watching this episode before I ever got around to seeing the actual film. When I finally saw the movie, I remember being like … “oh, this is where that Sabrina episode got all this slow-motion fighting from”. This is easily my second favorite episode behind the previously mentioned “Good Will Haunting”, and even though it’s not set on Halloween, this one putts me in the mood for the holiday better than most of the others. The decorations and monster appearances are all great, and even the sup plot with the aunts is fun as their sent to instruct child Witches on how to be scary. There’re also some very funny jokes, and I love this one gag in which Sabrina goes through various classrooms to find her friends, only to have one silly-spooky encounter after another. This is also a rare episode that has actual high stakes, and the evil vampire Vlad is definitely the best villain sense the Molly Dolly. Big laughs, big fights, a solid guest star appearance from Sisqo, and a bonus musical number make this a solid addition to Sabrina’s haunted gallery.

Season 6: Episode 123 – “Murder on the Halloween Express” 

Here it is, the seventh and final Halloween episode of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, and it’s something of a mixed bag. As usual, Sabrina is in charge of making sure that everyone has fun for Halloween, weather they want it or not. Thus, she and her friends board a murder mystery train, where they all are supposed to act as individual characters and solve a mystery. 
The catch is that the train is magic, all her friends literally become the characters from the story, and the stakes are raised as Sabrina’s boy friend had the misfortune of being castted as the murdered victim. Now Sabrina has to solve the mystery of the murder for real, chase down clues, and get it right, because if she fails, they’ll all be trapped on an eternal Halloween train that never stops. The premise of this episode is fantastic, as it’s completely different from any previous holiday episode, the setting is unique, there’s stakes involved, and there’s even a good twist at the end. The downside is that there’s really not much Halloween on display, most of the jokes fall flat, and for as great as the premise is, it’s also very one note and things get repetitive very fast. Plus, it feels like a drop in the water compared to the premier episode. While not a completely terrible episode, it doesn’t quiet put me in the mood for the holiday, and doesn’t do anything too special with its creative premise. 

 That wraps up all of Sabrina's Halloween episodes, and it's been a nostalgic little throw back. For those who also grew up with the series, I hope it was fun looking back, and if your someone just looking for any random Halloween special, maybe this will give you something to look into.