There were extensive technical problems at the start of this week’s showing of Hocus Pocus; perhaps they put me in a bad mood. Alternatively, I may have been annoyed by Halloween, a holiday which I have never been too excited about. Whatever the reason, the simple truth is that I was immune to this movie’s charms. It made me laugh a few times, but most of those laughs were unintentional, and when this movie tried to get a sincere response from me I found myself face-palming instead.
The villains of the film are introduced first: the Sanderson sisters, played by Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Bette Midler. They’re witches in 1693 Salem, and after doing a few evil things, they meet the same fate that all suspected witches met in Salem (Among this film’s many crimes: it may teach small children that some of the women who died in Salem were guilty). The witches are resurrected three hundred years later by Dani (Thora Birch), her older brother Max (Omri Katz), and his would-be love interest Allison (Vinessa Shaw). Supernatural hijinks follow, and because Bette Midler is involved, some of them are sure to involve singing.
On a scale from 1 to 10, this movie starts at 11 and only gets bigger. Movies aimed at young children are often hammy – just look at the previous year’s Aladdin – but Hocus Pocus is a ham sandwich where the bread, mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato have all been replaced with additional slices of ham. Every joke is over-sold, to the point that the actors seemed to be elbowing me in the ribs while saying, “Get it?” after every line.
Now, I suppose if you’re going to go that big, Bette Midler is the actress to hire. Like most Broadway veterans, she can be as big as you want, and then double it just for fun. But this role is so big and so broad that I don’t understand how even very young children will believe her as a villain. The goofy bucktooth prosthesis, the campy posturing … maybe I’m too old to remember what scared me as a kid, but I would think it better for Midler to have some menace to her, like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz. After all, the screenplay calls upon her to worship Satan and drink the souls of virgins.
Let’s focus on that last bit for a second. Hocus Pocus is one of the weirdest PG-rated pictures I’ve seen in a while. Like a lot of kids’ films, it goes to some strange places in order to entertain the adults in the audience. The witches’ spell book is bound in human flesh, written in blood, and has a single staring eye, but is anyone in the audience going to be impressed by those references to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead? A comedy sequence in the middle has Parker trying to seduce a man who’s dressed as a devil, because she thinks he’s the actual Satan; good luck explaining that one to the kiddies. As for the film’s obsession with the witches’ unique hunger, this is a film which will cause a lot of parents to field the awkward question, “what’s a virgin?”
The heroes do not fare much better. Shaw is game, and the movie deserves a bit of credit for making her capable enough that she’s more than just “the love interest.” However, Katz (who had a long TV career as a child actor on shows like Dallas and Eerie, Indiana) gets the lion’s share of heroic moments, and he’s just not good. His transitions between “sullen teenager” and “movie hero” come without warning and go just as fast. His big dramatic moment, where he tries to talk a cursed spirit into helping him, caused me to issue the loudest laughter I did all evening.
Before you think I hated every aspect of this movie, I do want to single out Sarah Jessica Parker for praise. Opposite Midler and Najimy, who were both far bigger stars at the time, she’s very subtle and steals quite a few scenes. She’s also the only one of the three witches who seems to have an actual character – basically, an overgrown child drunk on the power of being a witch – while Midler and Najimy seem to have been told, “just be you, but evil.” There were very few times that this film intentionally made me laugh, but every time it did, Parker was the reason. Unfortunately, Parker is a very small part of this movie, and the rest of it is tough to handle.
I can see how Hocus Pocus could become a Halloween institution for children of a certain age, in the same way that I can see how Mighty Morphin Power Rangers became a hit amongst kids of a slightly different age. As with the Power Rangers, this is a situation where you show the thing to your kids without trying to understand why they love it. Just watch your kids loving it, and that will be more entertaining for you than the movie itself.
Reviewed by Mark Young