Children love Halloween! This has been proven by scientists. It stems from children’s natural fondness for candy and evil. And you know what else children love? Bette Midler! The li’l tykes can’t get enough of her! So the 1993 film “Hocus Pocus,” starring Midler as one of a trio of witches who are resurrected on Halloween and attempt to murder all the town’s children, is the perfect combination of campy horror and screeching divas that no youngster can resist!
(Note: I initially felt some reluctance to discuss a Halloween film in February, as this felt like hunting out of season. Then I noticed that the movie in question hit theaters in July. So game on.)
(Second note: “Hocus Pocus” is a Disney film, so you may rest assured that the attempts at child murder are depicted in a light-hearted manner, and by hammy actors, and with too much whimsical background music, and probably with two or three direct-to-video sequels.)
We begin in Salem, Mass., in 1693, when hardly a day went by without some alleged witch or other being put to death by superstitious townsfolk. The provincial rubes happen to be right this time, though: the Sanderson sisters really are witches. They’re played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker, putting the film very high on the list of movies one is most likely to see reenacted by drag queens. Some witches are harmless, but not the Sandersons. They’re the wicked kind, the kind that cast dark spells and mix potions in cauldrons and do a lot of cackling. And I mean A LOT of cackling. My goodness, the cackling is nearly ceaseless. This movie comes in a five-pound bag, yet it contains ten pounds of cackling.
The Sandersons have evidently been a thorn in Salem’s side for a while now, occasionally pausing from their cackling long enough to suck the life force out of a local kid in order to retain their own (comparative) youthfulness. But now the Salemites have had enough! They construct a gallows and hang the Sanderson sisters from the neck — and not just until they shut up, which would have been sufficient, but until they are actually dead! Salem’s days of witch-coddling are over.
We jump ahead 300 years to Halloween 1993. You’d think, given its history, that Salem would be kind of uptight about witches, the way modern Germany is about you-know-who. But nope, all of Salem is surprisingly keen on witches, particularly on Halloween. The Sanderson sisters are folk legends, their old house was turned into a museum, and schoolteachers share the story during class time. Sadly, this veneration of the once-feared Sanderson sisters is typical of our culture, where we tend to turn villains into heroes once they’re dead. We did the same thing with Jack the Ripper, Jesse James, and the guy who directed Baby Geniuses.
Max Dennison (Omri Katz), a new kid at the high school, doesn’t believe in all this witch nonsense. This earns him a lot of mockery from his peers, who not only believe in it but think it’s super-awesome. That night, Max has to take his 8-year-old sister, Dani (Thora Birch), trick-or-treating. (If you think about it, trick-or-treating in Salem must be like Christmas caroling in Bethlehem.) They encounter Allison (Vinessa Shaw), a pretty girl from school for whom Max has a thing, and she says, hey, why don’t the three of us go over to the Sanderson sisters’ creepy old house? It used to be a museum, but then funding ran out or something, and now it’s boarded up and covered in cobwebs, which is probably more faithful to the Sandersons’ aesthetic anyway.
Unfortunately, we know that if they go to the Sanderson house, they’re going to raise the witches from the dead, and that the witches are going to have 300 years’ worth of cackling to make up for. Sure enough, that’s what happens. Just before they died, the Sandersons cast a spell promising that if a virgin lights a certain candle under a full moon on Halloween, the witches will live again. Yeesh. Not that I side with the witches here, but that is one complicated spell. It has to be a certain candle, AND a virgin, AND a full moon, AND Halloween? That seems like a spell you’d cast if you didn’t want to be resurrected.
As fate would have it, Max is indeed a virgin — this fact is mentioned several times — and he lights the candle to prove that the legend about the witches isn’t true, and then they come back to life and prove that it is. Ugh. The movie was so quiet without them. But now they’re back, jauntier than ever, doing their spastic Three Stooges routine. Midler’s witch, the leader, has giant rabbit teeth. Najimy is doing some kind of Bill-Murray-in-Caddyshack thing with her voice. Parker’s witch is a ditzy blonde. The three bicker, cackle, shriek, and joke with relentless energy. It’s like watching The View as enacted by caffeinated chickens.
The Sandersons only have until dawn to murder a child and take his or her life force; otherwise, they will die (again). But for some reason they can’t do this without their book of spells, and Max, Dani, and Allison have run off with it, and you just know those dumb witches are cursing themselves for not having memorized the single most important spell in their repertoire. Do you think Billy Joel has to get out the sheet music every time he plays “Piano Man”? I DO NOT THINK SO.
Now the film is split into two parallel threads. In one, the witches are wandering around town, looking for the spellbook, marveling at modern technology, generally doing a lot of braying, hooting, and whinnying. When they pass a spookily decorated house and are greeted by a man in a devil costume, the dumb witches think it actually is their lord and master Lucifer, and they engage in painfully unfunny banter with him. He’s played by Garry Marshall, so you can see where they’d mistake him for Satan. (Garry Marshall is such a terrible filmmaker that he even does cameos in other people’s terrible films, just to stay sharp.)
Meanwhile, Max and Allison are having a tasteful tween romance while babysitting Dani and hiding the spellbook. The fact that they inadvertently conjured three squawking murderesses does not seem to have traumatized them. They also adjust very quickly to the idea of a talking cat, whose name is Binx, and who used to be a boy, back in 1693, before the witches felinized him and gave him the curse of immortality. (You’re probably thinking that if the witches could make someone else live forever, they should have been able to do that to themselves. But of course the immortality spell only works if you turn the person into a cat first, duh.) Binx has been chillin’ at the museum all this time, guarding the candle to make sure no virgins light it on Halloween under a full moon. As a human he failed to stop the witches from killing his sister; as a cat he failed to prevent the one thing he sat around for 300 years waiting to prevent. Binx is a failure across two species.
At this point, several things happen that are unrelated but that the movie believes are part of a coherent story. First, the kids see a discarded oven in an alleyway and get an idea. (If there’s one thing that excites a kid, it’s a defunct appliance!) Next, the witches go to the local high school. The kids are already there, waiting for them. There is no indication that the kids did anything to lure them; the witches just sort of show up. There’s probably a deleted scene where the kids do some luring, and maybe where Binx fails at something else, maybe this time as a ferret. Anyway, now the witches are here, and the kids lock them in what I guess is a kiln? A big room-sized oven? For the ceramics class, I suppose, but it looks like a Holocaust oven, and for a moment I thought the film had taken a very dark turn.
The kids stupidly think they have killed the witches, even though the movie has only been on for an hour. They head home, immediately open the spellbook out of curiosity, and inadvertently summon the not-at-all-dead witches, whose escape from the kiln is not explained. The sisters abduct Dani for purposes of slaying her and consuming her life force, though the movie makes this sound far less horrifying than I just did. Max and Allison have to save her and then basically wait for sunrise, when the witches will turn to dust and the forces of good will win by default. That’s another thing children love: unearned victories. You give a kid a movie with The Divine Miss M, the attempted slaughter of children, and a primary conflict that is solved by the sun coming up, and you’ve got a hit on your hands.