Friday, October 16, 2015

Hocus Pocus

You know, I've watched some pretty warped and scary things this month, what with all the undead ghouls and child murder. I need a break. A nice, pleasant, live-action Disney movie starring Bette Midler should be just the ticket....

Oh my. Hocus Pocus (1993) is a children's movie, right? This tale of three witchy sisters - who prey on children, own a flesh-bound grimoire that's the Necronomicon in all but name, have a zombie slave, and painfully transform a boy into a cat - has more than its fair share of jokes about a 16-year-old boy being a virgin than one would expect from the Mouse, which is to say it has any. Hocus Pocus would be downright terrifying and disturbing given the subject matter if not for the fact it's very silly, giddy even. I can't call it a great movie, but I can't bring myself to dislike it. It's just too much fun.

The plot focuses on the Sanderson sisters: Winifred (Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), witches who aim to devour the life-force of all children of Salem so they can stay young forever. They're hanged but not before turning young Thackery Binx, the brother of one of their victims, into a black cat. Three-hundred years later, high schooler Max (Omri Katz) unwittingly resurrects the witches on Halloween (a virgin had to light a candle, you see), and now with his sister Dani (Thora Birch), love interest Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and Binx the cat, he has to stop the witches.

Hocus Pocus was one of those movies that came and went in theaters without making too much noise, and some of the critical reviews I've read were very harsh. Somehow, at least among my generation, it's become cherished as a cult favorite. Facebook friends are guaranteed to share quotes and memes, and every October, you can bet ABC Family is going to show the movie a few dozen times. I'm not sure why, but for some reason, this movie struck a chord with children of the 90s. Hell, I even had it taped on a VHS cassette along with The Worst Witch.

Maybe for a lot of us, it was one of our first encounters with macabre material, but it's done for laughs instead of chills. Hocus Pocus has a lot of elements that are almost scary before the film undercuts them. The Sandersons drain the life-force out of Binx's sister in the first five minutes, and her lifeless body is slumped over in a chair, and Mary, trying to hide her from the townspeople, throws a blanket over her. The zombie, Billy Butcherson (played by the always valuable Doug Jones), loses his head twice and shambles after the kids until he cuts the stitches off to open his mouth (long story), tells Winnie what he's waited centuries to say, and joins the good guys.

The witches themselves are very silly. Mary and Sarah aren't the brightest candles at the seance, and Winnie is always lamenting her lot in life for having such idiot sisters. She has no qualms about bossing them around and slapping them when they screw up. Later, when they lose their broomsticks, the sisters resort to mops and vacuum cleaners to soar through the night. The movie also has fun with these 17th century witches not understanding modern Salem: mistaking firefighters for witch hunters, thinking a Clark bar is the "chocolate-covered finger of a man named Clark," and not knowing what a bus is. They even mistake a devilishly costumed Gary Marshall as their master and a hair curler-wearing Penny Marshall as another notorious supernatural woman ("Master's married Medusa!").

That said, there are few creepy moments that linger. Binx is transformed into an immortal cat, cursed to live with his guilt forever (not even getting run over by a bus can kill him. He's flattened like a pancake but returns to form in no time). Near the end, Sarah gets a Pied Piper moment when she sings, luring all the children of Salem to the sisters' house to be drained. There's also a lot of innuendo that probably goes over most kids' heads. I didn't know what a virgin was when I first saw this movie, so all the references to Max being one didn't make sense at the time (even Dani makes fun of him for it, but that's probably because she knows it bothers him rather than knowing what it means). The witches also get their share of suggestive lines, particularly Sarah ("We can hang him on a hook and let me play with him.")

Of course, the real strength of Hocus Pocus is the performances of the three witches. There's just something about playing witches that gives actresses the chance to cut loose and play it broadly, with no concerns for subtly or being sympathetic, and that's the case here. Midler, Najimy, and Parker just play it all to the hilt, clearly having fun being bad and silly, and it's impossible to resist. Winifred is the dominant leader, the focused one who keeps the plot on track; Mary is the child-like one who is always smelling for children, and it's strongly hinted she's enjoyed a few for dinner; and Sarah is the ditz who flirts with every boy and man she comes across. They even get a couple of musical numbers, including a show-stopping version of "I Put a Spell on You" at a costume party, and since they use music to cast spells, it actually makes sense to the plot.

Hocus Pocus is a Halloween movie, about that one day of the year where we can almost believe magic is real, supernatural creatures do exist, and the dead can walk among the living. Sure, witches might appear to try to kidnap and devour children, but hey, they have style and sure know how to party.

No comments:

Post a Comment