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Retrospective Film Review, Halloween Edition: Kenny Ortega’s ‘Hocus Pocus’

Tuesday 31 October 2017

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Words Alice Bell

The one good thing about Halloween falling on a weekday this year is that, by the time All Hallows Eve actually rolls around, most of us will probably be over our early Halloween weekend hangovers. This leaves us mercifully free to enjoy the holiday the way the Lord (of Darkness, of course) intended – with a spooky movie and leftover chocolate. And one need look no further than Kenny Ortega’s 1993 cult classic, Hocus Pocus: a freaky family frolic with, as I discovered, unexpected undertones of existential drama. Let’s get spooky…

Image result for hocus pocus 1993

The film opens in a village near Salem, Massachusetts in the early hours of 31st October, 1693. Local teenager Thackeray Binx wakes to see his little sister, Emily, being lured into the forest by three witches called the Sanderson sisters: Winifred (played by Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy).

Thackeray follows the witches to their house where Winifred, the leader of the trio, throws open the windows to the day, exclaiming ‘Oh look! Another glorious morning… Makes me SICK!’ This is frankly iconic and makes it hard to root against her for the rest of the movie.

The witches have brewed a potion from a spell-book gifted to them by the Devil himself, designed to help them suck the life out of children so that they can regain their lost youth. Though Thackeray tries to stop them doing this to Emily – delivering high-calibre zinger ‘Hag! There are not enough children in the world to make thee young and beautiful!’ – they overpower him and suck the life out of her, killing her stone dead.

As if the child-murdering weren’t already dark enough, the sisters then transform Thackeray into an immortal black cat so that he has to live with his guilt for not saving his sister for the rest of eternity. The townsfolk hang the witches, but not before Winifred casts a curse that means the sisters will be resurrected if the Black Flame Candle in their cottage is lit by a virgin during a full moon on All Hallows Eve…

300 years later, it’s Halloween 1993. There’s a full moon in the sky and a new kid in school called Max who, along with an apparently deep love for eye-watering tie-dye, has an equally deep-rooted scepticism for all things occult.

‘Everyone knows that Halloween was invented by the candy companies,’ he states haughtily to his class. He is quickly distracted from his mission of waking up the sheeple, however, by an attractive girl in his class named Alison. Unfortunately for Max, Alison is a believer in All Hallows Eve and the Sanderson Sisters, and she refuses his offer of a date and his telephone number – tragic.

We’d be concerned too if we had this in our wardrobe

To make a bad day even worse, on the way home Max has his shoes stolen. After cycling home in his socks, Max storms up to his room to comfort himself by – I kid you not – cuddling a pillow and crooning ‘Oh Alison, you’re so soft’ to it. Something tells me that a Halloween curse is the least of this kid’s problems.

His 8-year-old sister Dani then jumps out at him from his closet dressed as a witch, instantly surpassing everyone else in the movie in terms of likeability. She calls him out for being a pillow-fondling weirdo and he is forced to take her out trick or treating, though he pouts excessively about it.

‘Come on, it’ll be like old times!’ Dani promises.

‘The old days are dead!’ Max sulks, apparently somehow channelling the spirit of 2017 Taylor Swift.

When out on the town the pair encounter Max’s muggers who, not content with their earlier shoe thievery, are now fleecing children for their Halloween candy. They threaten to hang Dani from a telephone pole when she sasses them – again, evidence that beneath the gaudy surface of this film lurks a very dark psychological underworld. Max is humiliated, and tells her to ‘Collect your candy and get out of my life!’

Dani proceeds to weep against someone’s porchside pumpkin until Max apologises, and the two continue trick-or-treating, meeting a ballgowned Alison at her parents’ Halloween party. Max suggests, in the inexplicable way of teenagers in scary movies, that they ditch the party to go to the abandoned Sanderson house together, and the girls (again somewhat inexplicably) agree.

When there, they find the Sanderson sisters’ spellbook and, of course, the Black Flame Candle. Max goes to light it but is attacked by Thackeray – now, in his feline form, styled as ‘Binx’, and who has been guarding the house for three centuries because, as he puts it with characteristic sass, ‘I knew some airhead virgin might light that candle’.

‘Oh come on,’ Max scoffs when the girls suggest that they leave. ‘It’s just a bunch of hocus pocus!’

As everyone but Max could have predicted, as soon as Max lights the candle the house immediately begins to shake and the door bursts open: Bette is back, flanked by SJP and Kathy Najimy. Max and the girls escape with the spell-book and a thorough telling-off from Binx, who is for some reason much more likeable in his pissed-off cat form than as a human. We learn that if the sisters don’t manage to get their spellbook back and brew the potion to suck life out of children before the end of Halloween night, they’ll turn to dust as soon as the sun comes up.

The capers that follow make for very fun viewing. Particular highlights are any time the witches encounter the wonders of modern technology, their foray into the house of a man dressed up as the Devil thinking that he is their ‘master’, and Bette Midler taking the stage at the local Halloween ball for a rousing rendition of ‘I Put A Spell On You’.

The final confrontation of the film occurs – where else? – in the local graveyard, concluding with the explosion of each of the sisters into variously-coloured glittery smoke when the sun rises.

Max and Dani share a touching brother-sister moment before realising that Binx, the curse upon him now broken, has finally died. He hangs around in ghost form long enough to say goodbye, although to be honest I found this a bit of an anticlimax as I really did prefer him as a cat. The ghost of his sister calls to him from the gates of the graveyard and he turns to leave, calling ‘Sorry Emily, I had to wait 300 years for a virgin to light a candle’, showing that even in death he has not abandoned his absolute savagery.

And so, the film concludes with the soul that’s been trapped in earthly purgatory for three centuries leaving the graveyard with his murdered sister, finally at peace, proving that there’s really no happy ending like the sweet release of death. Light-hearted Halloween viewing!

Existential drama aside, Hocus Pocus is a very fun and very funny film, with moments of sharp wit and a brilliant performance from Midler who I am more than willing to welcome as Queen of Darkness on the strength of this film alone. Come for the cult status, stay for the comedy and the musical number – and try to ignore the current of very genuine horror that bubbles just beneath the surface.

Happy Halloween!