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.      

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