Halloween Classics: “Hocus Pocus” (1993)

If there were were ever a film that should be declared the official film of Halloween, it would have to be “Hocus Pocus.”  Released in 1993 and starring (among many others) the inimitable Bette Midler, the film follows a group of teens as they struggle to beat a trio of witches they have inadvertently resurrected from the dead.  With its signature 1990s aesthetic and sense of humour, there is just so much to love about this film that I hardly know where to start.

While some might view this film ironically, I actually think that its humour grows better with age, precisely because the film does not seem to take itself too seriously.  We are invited to laugh with it, because it knows that what it is doing is at least somewhat ridiculous.  Whether it’s Winifred sneeringly spitting out the word “dude’ at Max or demanding that he pull over and show his driver license, the film knows that we are in on the jokes that it is telling.  Like the greatest of “children’s films,” it operates on a number of levels, and this flexibility explains, at least in part, why the film has continued to gain a following.  Those who originally watched it as kids can gain a greater and more nuanced understanding of the humour, while those discovering it for the first time can still appreciate the film’s particular charms.

And, of course, no review of this film would be complete without mentioning the absolutely exquisitely performed song “I Put a Spell on You.”  This is Midler at the height of her musical powers, and the song is infectiously listenable (indeed the only problem is that it is far too short, though I’m sure that’s part of what makes it so appealing).  Of course, it should come as no surprise that Midler should steal the show during the entire film, as she seems as aware as the film itself of the potential camp value of her performance (and she seems to want to invite us in on the joke).  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that it is Winifred, more than any of the other characters, whom the film wants us to identify with, given that she manages to pull all eyes to her, no matter what she happens to be doing in a particular scene.

While Winifred/Bette is the film’s centerpiece, both Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker deliver hilariously over-the-top performances as Mary and Sarah, respectively.  Najimy manages to make Mary hilariously inept yet charming, and Parker has a sublimely horrifying moment in which she lures the children of Salem away with her ghostly singing.  Also deserving mention are sibling TV vets Garry and Penny Marshall, who briefly appear as a squabbling husband and wife.  Truly comedy gold.

The irony, of course, is that the film was something of a critical disappointment upon its release.  It’s really  shame that they couldn’t see it for what it was, but perhaps if it had won the critics’ appreciation it would not have gone on to become one of the most iconic camp films since The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Of course, audiences didn’t seem to get the film either, since it did not do terribly well at the box office (but remember, this was also a year in which Jurassic Park was dominating the box office).  Again, perhaps if it had been a phenomenal success it would not have gone on to become the Halloween staple that it has increasingly become in recent years.

I have to say, there is something uniquely pleasurable about watching the film with the group of new fans that have grown up around it.  As I was tweeting about the film, I marveled that, when I watched the film way back in 1993, I could never have imagined that it would become the social media phenomenon that it is now (there were at least three different hashtags I was using during my Twitter session).  Nor could I have imagined, in those bygone days when the internet was just starting out, that there would be a veritable industry of memes.  Truly, this just goes to show that some films are timeless.

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