Perhaps Hocus Pocus (1993) is the movie that least dignified of holidays, Halloween, which is about kitsch, camp and bad jokes, deserves. It’s not a very good movie, but it’s light and bouncy, and everyone involved seems to be having a good time and that’s infectious. The movie itself is like an outrageous Halloween costume: It’s cheap and easy, and it seems stupid compared to normal clothes, but in context, it’s not so bad.
The story of the Salem witch trials is a famous piece of American history; however, what you might have missed is that the hubbub centered around three witches, the Sanderson sisters, Mary (Kathy Najimy), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Winifred (Bette Midler),who spent the late 17th century making potions that stole the souls of children in an attempt to be young and beautiful forever. They were caught and brought to justice, but before they were hanged, they set a spell that would resuscitate their bodies if a virgin were to ignite a certain candle on a Halloween night during a full moon. It seems to me they would have been better served by a spell that would have expelled them from the hanging, but I’m not a witch.
Just the same, the bodies of the Sanderson sisters remained dormant for 300 years until a young man named Max Dennison (Omri Katz) takes his little sister Dani (Thora Birch) and his crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) to the Sanderson house, which has been preserved by the Salemites as a museum. Max is a skeptic and an out-of-towner (he, Dani and their family have moved to Salem from California), and he’s not swept up into the occult mania that the town exudes every October 31. In a rush of aporetic machismo, Max decides to light the cursed candle, and because the movie is insistent on reminding us that Max is not yet sexually active, he meets the requirement defined by the hex and the three sisters are returned from the grave.
From here we get a combination of a fish-out-of-water comedy as the ancient witches adapt to the modern world and a thrilling special effects extravaganza with witches on broomsticks, mops and vacuum cleaners shooting electricity out of their fingers, and raising the dead. The witches are able to chase the kids around town relatively unnoticed because everyone else looks as ridiculous as they do. The script tries to get too much mileage out of this essentially one-note premise, but it does create the funniest moment in the movie, as the sisters stumble into the home of Garry Marshall, dressed as the devil, who they mistake as the real Satan, their master.
This being a Disney production, it’s handsomely staged and impeccably realized. Everything feels low-rent and artificial, but that adds to the campy effect. This is a fine movie for very little children and it’s not particularly difficult to understand why it has remained sentimental to many of those children now that they’ve reached adulthood (myself, I was starved of Hocus Pocus in my formative years and only came to it as a cold grown-up, which might explain my dimmer view on it). It’s cheesy and simple, but its heart is in the right place even if its script and direction are somewhere else.
The movie belongs to the witches (the kids are bores, particularly the love interest Allison who is so underwritten she could be removed entirely without much of a change in the story), and Najimy, Parker and Midler have a lot of fun hamming it up. Their scenes have an improvisational feel to them that is double edged; it makes them seem fresh compared to the sometimes wooden deliveries of the other characters, but they are often unfocused, as if they were trying to crack each other up without considering whether or not it would do the same for the audience. Their performances are so big and exaggerated that it starts out as groan-worthy but gradually wears you down until by the end their commitment is contagious.
And that’s what really makes Hocus Pocus as (relatively) enduring as it is, which is something that can often be applied to these types of Disney projects that have no right lasting but do: everybody’s on board. Don’t get me wrong—everyone’s tongues are in their cheeks, but they’re firmly in their cheeks. There are more than a few bad kids’ movies made worse by the fact that the adult actors know the movie’s bad and are just going through the motions. Hocus Pocus is able to rise above that because its stars may know it’s bad, but they don’t care enough to stop having a good time—and it’s hard not to have a good time with them, at least a little.