Saturday, October 1, 2022

Stubs - Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus
(1993) Starring Bette Milder, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw. Directed by Kenny Ortega. Screenplay by Mick Garris, Neil Cuthbert. Produced by David Kirschner, Steven Haft. Run time: 96 minutes. USA Color Fantasy, Comedy.

Home Video and TV airings (and now streaming) can sometimes save films that might otherwise be forgotten. Case in point, Hocus Pocus, a 1993 Disney film that when first released came and went without much fanfare, and in fact, cost its studio, Walt Disney, up to $16.5 million. Since then, annual showings on ABC Freeform and its DVD release have made the film a cult classic of sorts. So much of one, that nearly thirty years after its release Disney is strongly considering bringing back the stars for a sequel on Disney+.

The story opens in colonial Salem on October 31, 1693. Thackery Binx (Sean Murray) witnesses his little sister, Emily (Amanda Shepherd), being seduced into the woods by the Sanderson sisters, three older witches named Winifred (Bette Milder), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy). He alerts his father (Norbert Weisser) before taking chase.

Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), Winifred (Bette Milder), and
Mary (Kathy Najimy) before they suck the soul out of Emily.

At their cottage, while Thackery watches, the witches cast a spell on Emily and absorb her youth and regain their own, killing her in the process. When Thackery confronts the witches, Winifred transforms him into a black cat cursed to live forever with his guilt for not saving his sister.

Suddenly, the townsfolk, led by Thackery's friend, Elijah (Steve Voboril), and his father, arrest the sisters and sentence them to be hanged for the murder of Emily and Thackery’s disappearance. But before their execution, Winifred casts a spell that will resurrect the sisters during a full moon on All Hallows' Eve when any virgin lights the Black Flame Candle. To prevent this, Thackery, now a black cat, decides to guard the cottage to ensure no one summons the witches.

Three centuries later, on October 31, 1993, Max Dennison (Omri Katz) is a new student at school, having moved recently with his family from Los Angeles, California. He hears his teacher recount the story of the Sanderson sisters but he doesn’t believe any of it. He does have a crush on one of his fellow students, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), but she doesn’t seem to return the feelings.

Max Dennison (Omri Katz) takes his sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick-or-treating.

On his way home, Max runs into two bullies from school, Jay (Tobias Jelinek) and Ernie “Ice” (Larry Bagby III), who eventually steal his new shoes. When he gets home, he really doesn’t have the Halloween spirit but still has to take his little sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick or treating.

One of their stops is Allison’s home, where her parents are throwing a lavish costume party. In an effort to impress Allison, Max invites her to show him the Sanderson house to convince him the witches were real. Allison, who is bored by the party, changes, and the three of them leave.

Max convinces Allison (Vinessa Shaw) to break into the
museum where the Sanderson cottage used to be.

The Sanderson cottage had once been a museum but it is not abandoned. Inside, Max still doesn’t take it seriously and, admitting he’s a virgin, lights the Black Flame Candle, which inadvertently resurrects the witches.

The witches attempt to suck the soul out of Dani, but Max comes to her rescue. Escaping, Max steals Winifred's spellbook (grimoire) on advice from Thackery, who now goes by his last name of Binx.

Binx leads the group to an old cemetery, which is sacred ground and off-limits to witches. Binx shows them the graves of his sister and Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones), who was once Winifred's lover. But when she caught him making out with Sarah, she poisoned him and sewed his mouth shut so that he couldn't tell her secrets even in death.

The witches eventually catch up but since they can’t go in, Winifred raises Billy Butcherson from the dead, his mouth still sewn shut, to chase them on foot. Binx leads the kids through passages and into the sewer and out to the street above.

The witches try to acclimate to the 20th century but are horrified when they discover Halloween has become a celebration. They have a hard time recognizing children as they are in disguises. Winifred also reveals that the spell that brought them back only works on Halloween and unless they can suck the life out of one child, they'll turn to dust when the sun rises.

The three witches mistake an unsuspecting homeowner (Garry Marshall) dressed as the devil as their Devil Master. When he invites them inside, they think they are in his presence, until his wife (Penny Marshall) gets tired of the flirting and kicks them out. They leave to pursue but when they find their broomsticks have been taken, they end up riding the bus.

Mary, Winifred, and Sarah put a spell on those gathered at an adult Halloween party.

Meanwhile, Max, Dani, and Allison find their parents, Dave (Charles Rocket) and Jenny (Stephanie Faracy), at the City Hall Halloween party. Neither of them believes the outlandish story their son is trying to tell them. He tries to point out the Sanderson sisters to the crowd, but Winifred uses it as an introduction to a singing routine that captivates the crowd. Before she leaves, Winifred enchants the partygoers to dance until they die.

Allison has an idea and the kids lead the witches to Jacob Bailey High School, which Winifred identifies as a prison for children. Using a tape recorder, the children lead the witches into a kiln, when they burn them alive. But while the children are celebrating, the witches' curse revives them again. They return to their cottage thinking that without the spellbook they have no hope.

Despite warnings not to, Allison and Max look in the spellbook.

Not realizing the witches have survived, Max and Allison open the spellbook, intending to reverse the spell on Binx, even though he has warned them not to do it. The open spellbook reveals the location of the group. When Max goes to walk Allison home, the witches track them down, kidnap Dani and Binx, and, most importantly, recover the spellbook.

Using her siren-like song, Sarah entices Salem's children to the Sanderson cottage. Max and Allison free Dani and Binx by tricking the witches, using headlights into believing that sunrise was an hour early. Thinking that they are done for, the witches panic and pass out, allowing Max, Dani, Allison, and Binx to escape. When they recover and take chase, without their brooms, they’re forced to use what’s leftover in the museum’s utility closet, which includes a broom, a mop, and a vacuum cleaner, more laughs here.

Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) cuts open his mouth to tell Winifred what he really thinks about her.

Back at the cemetery, the group is ambushed by Billy. Max pulls a knife to fight him off but loses. Then, using Max's knife, Billy cuts open his stitched-up mouth and insults Winifred, therefore joining Max, Allison, Dani, and Binx against the witches.

Winifred manages to grab Dani.

The witches attack and Winifred attempts to use the last vial of potion to suck the soul from Dani. But Binx leaps on Winifred and knocks the potion out of her hand. Max catches the vial and drinks the potion, forcing the witches to take him instead of Dani.

Winifred starts to suck the life out of Max but the sun rises just as Winifred is about to finish draining Max's life force. Meanwhile, Allison, Dani, and Billy fend off Mary and Sarah, and Max and Winifred fall onto the hallowed ground in the cemetery, causing Winifred to turn into stone. As the sun finishes rising, Mary and Sarah are disintegrated into dust along with Winifred's stone body.

With the witches gone, Max, Dani, and Allison say goodbye to Billy as he returns to his grave. But Binx dies. Dani is sad until Thackery reveals that his soul is now free. Appearing as a spirit, he thanks the group for their help and bids farewell as he is finally reunited with the spirit of his sister Emily.

Also freed from their spell are the exhausted partygoers, including Max and Dani's parents.

Meanwhile, at the Sanderson cottage, Ice and Jay, who had been taken by the witches after insulting them, remain imprisoned in cages and sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to pass the time.

Lastly, the spellbook is seen opening its eye, revealing it is still alive and opening the door for the witches to possibly return, which makes sense since there is a planned sequel.

The film feels like the mid-90s offering from Disney that it was, which means there are moments where things work but also other moments where it doesn’t. To begin with, it seems sort of odd to start a comedy with the death of a child. And the witches’ goal is to kill more children, it makes the trio hard to cheer for since their goal is morbid. Not that it stops Disney from playing them up and making them the center of the film and publicity campaign.

There is a missed opportunity to show the witches struggling with modern America. There is a little bit of it but not really enough as you would imagine everything would give them pause. Instead, they adapt very quickly, killing that avenue for comedy in the process.

It also rings false to me that the witches would have a song, with routine, prepared. I know it’s Bette Midler and she can surely sing but it seems incongruent for the situation. That’s one of the many places in Hocus Pocus where you know you’re watching a Disney movie. I used to have the same complaint about musicals but in that art form, it is to be expected. Perhaps if they captivated the adults with Sarah’s siren song, it might be more believable.

Also, when a movie seems to wrap things up with twenty minutes of run time left you know it’s a false ending and that’s what happens in Hocus Pocus. That actually works in its favor so that while you’re watching the children relaxing you know that there is danger coming.

The film does manage a somewhat emotional ending. It’s not tear-worthy, but it is touching to see Thackery back with Emily, even as spirits, 300 hundred years later. And it’s not a coincidence that the cemetery gates double for the Golden Gates of heaven when Thackery and Emily pass through together. What takes away from it a little bit is that we never really get to know Emily before she’s killed at the beginning; and hilarity ensues, as they say.

Of the stars, the obvious big name, especially at the time, was Bette Milder. She’s a force of nature and has the attributes for the role of Winifred. It is a little too cute that they worked a song, “I’ve Got a Spell on You”, for her to sing. "The Divine Miss M" is good but she might have been better with a better script.

The other two witches have less to do. Sarah Jessica Parker, as Sarah, is a case in point. There are times in the film that you think her only role is to look cute and sexy, which again does seem to ring true for witches from colonial times. And like Kathy Najimy’s Mary, she is supposed to be dumb as a post when she needs to be. Najimy gets one of the biggest laughs in the film, even if it is a visual gag, using a vacuum cleaner instead of a broom.

Sarah Jessica Parker would go on to achieve her own stardom a few years later in the HBO series Sex in the City. Najimy first grabbed national attention with the play The Kathy and Mo Show with Mo Gaffney. She would also go on to voice Peggy Hill in the long-running animated TV series King of the Hill. Her talent seems to be a bit wasted in this role.

Omri Katz makes for a good Max Dennison but there doesn’t appear to be anything special that he brings to the role. A childhood actor, Omri was out of acting by 2002.

Thora Birch’s Dani is more than just a precocious child but comes off at times like a little adult. She’s almost too put together for a child of her age, though she is still quite likable. Birch, who began her career as a kid actor in commercials, is still acting today. She’s been nominated for her acting; a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in American Beauty (1999) and a nomination for the Golden Globe for Best Actress for Ghost World (2001).

Vinessa Shaw has also been acting since she was a child. Her role here is considered to be a break-out for her. A child actor, she decided to continue acting as an adult after landing a role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). She’s okay. One gets the feeling she got the role in Hocus Pocus because of her looks as much as for her acting skills.

Overall, Hocus Pocus is an okay family film. There is a lot of talent on the screen but not always used at their best. While I can see why some people may like the film, it is not something that is going to be on my Halloween rotation. While it takes a comedic look at the subject of witches it’s not funny enough for repeat screenings. The film has set itself up for a possible sequel and that appears to be in the offing. I can’t say I’ll be standing in line to see it.

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