I’m beginning to think that Ch4 had some surplus Halloween movies left over, and just decided to burn them off as part of their Christmas schedule, regardless of the season… first it was Rosemary’s Baby and now Hocus Pocus (1993)! Even more bizarrely, Disney chose to debut this spooky flick in American theatres during the summer of ‘93… which may explain why it was such a flop first time around, and only really attracted a cult audience after its video release (when people could actually enjoy it on the appropriate night).
For those who don’t know, this supernatural comedy stars Omri Katz (of Eerie, Indiana fame) as a cocky teenager named ‘Max Dennison’, who has just moved to the infamous city of Salem with his parents and precocious young sister, ‘Dani’ (Thora Birch). He scoffs at the superstitious locals, and sulks his way through Halloween, slouching sullenly alongside his costumed sibling as he takes her trick-or-treating. Eventually they arrive at the home of ‘Alison’ (Vinessa Shaw), a comely classmate Max has a serious crush on. In a desperate/arrogant bid to impress her, he bravely browbeats the girls into accompanying him to an abandoned house-turned-museum, which is said to be haunted by the spirits of the Sanderson Sisters… three notorious, child-eating witches who were hanged back in the 1693, but vowed to return and continue their crime spree someday. Thankfully, the only way they could ever be resurrected is if a virgin lit the black candle located in their house on Halloween night, during a full moon… and no one would ever be stupid enough to do something like that, after specifically being warned against it by someone they supposedly fancy, would they? Well, no one except a hormonal teenage boy chock full of bravado, I guess! And thank goodness he does, because Alison is a total drag, and the witches are way more fun!
The three Sisters roughly correspond to the mythical archetypes of Crone, Mother and Maiden… in the form of ‘Winifred’ (Bette Midler), ‘Mary’ (Kathy Najimy) and ‘Sarah’ (Sarah Jessica Parker) respectively… but they clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously as villains, or as a twisted manifestation of the “Triple Goddess”. Normally I’d rate all three actresses as skilled comic performers, but unfortunately they’ve been encouraged to mug themselves silly here, behaving as if they were broadly-drawn cartoons brought to life by a tipsy animator… and not in a good way, either. Pantomime acting aside, SJP plays one of the sauciest sorceresses you’re ever likely to see in a family flick… an irrepressible minx who repeatedly begs to be allowed to “play” with the young men they capture, sits in a flirty bus-driver’s lap while he teaches her how to drive, slow dances with a random old-man-in-a-devil-costume she mistakes for her “master”, and capers around in a low-cut costume that constantly threatens to expose her… especially when she starts flying around on her broomstick, seductively cooing for all the children to follow her to their deaths! Some sources claim that the song she sings in that scene (“Come Little Children”) is based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, while others strongly dispute this suggestion… all I know is that the full version, as covered by Kate Covington (aka katethegreat19), is well worth downloading. Frankly I’m amazed the Mediaeval Baebes haven’t covered it on one of their albums yet! Fun fact: While researching her family history for the celeb-genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, SJP was shocked to discover that an ancestor of hers, Esther Elwell, had actually been arrested in Salem in the late 1600s for committing “sundry acts of witchcraft” and choking a neighbour to death… although apparently her case never went to court, and Esther escaped with her neck intact.
Despite the presence of some very big personalities in the adult cast, I’d say the movie really belongs to Birch, who acts her little socks off, and gets all the biggest laughs with her wildly inappropriate outbursts… I was particularly amused by her insistence on outing her brother as a virgin every time she tried to explain the night’s events to someone! It’s just a crying shame she hasn’t been able to build on her early success, and obvious talent. It’s inexplicable, really…
Overall, I’d say Hocus Pocus was a surprisingly funny and scary romp, with plenty of thrills and spills to keep the kids entertained, and enough off-colour double entendres in there to keep the grown-ups on their toes too.
Note: I once had to review an Insane Clown Posse song called “Hokus Pokus” for my uni’s student magazine, and now have the chorus playing through my head every time I read/write/think the title of this movie. Pesky!
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