Hocus Pocus is one of those childhood movies people associate with the fall season, no matter at what age. The Disney story of three witches coming back to life on Halloween night to suck the lives of the town’s children has the kind of aesthetic of the holiday people hold near and dear. But this begs the question — do we love this movie because it’s good or because it inspired all the feelings of the season when we were kids?
For this Halloween, I’ll be using a new system by breaking down what I’m talking about into The Good Candy, aka the great stuff, The Off-Brand Stuff, the kind of bad but potential salvageable, and The Toothpaste, the stuff that should have been immediately thrown out because it is garbage.
The Good Candy: My goodness is this a gorgeous looking film. The whole Northeast wood houses, red and gold leaves, pumpkins and front yards aesthetic is just too good to pass up. The costumes are excellent, and while the directing is a literal nightmare, the Halloween ball scene where Bette Midler sings her signature song, I’ll Put a Spell on You, is as glorious as it ever was.
The chemistry between Mary, Sarah, and Winifred is spot on, and they are by far the funniest parts of the movies, especially their bickering. They move well as a unit and they look like they’re having a ton of fun. Sarah Jessica Parker really gets into the role, which is surprising as someone whose future career was all about being serious and adult. Vinessa Shaw is also great as Allison, classy and poised but also very active and fun when she needs to be, even if she looks weirdly too old to be human.
The Off-Brand Stuff: While the chemistry between the sisters is solid, the dialogue of the other characters is cringe-worthy. When Dani talks about Max’s love of Allison’s “yaboes” I literally wanted to put my head through a wall. Stilted, wooden, or overly awkward is how the majority of these lines come off, and I’m inclined not to blame the actors for this since I can’t imagine anyone delivering these lines well.
Thora Birch was a terrible child actress. She is shrill and grating, and tries to be subversive and cool but it just comes off as annoying. There’s little charisma or charm in most of her scenes, save when she’s trying to trick the sisters and when she’s saying goodbye to Binks. She either chews scenery too much or has mood swings like a wrecking ball, swinging back and forth with deadly force.
Jay and Ice, the two main bullies of the film, were like a step below the Stephen King bullies that are murderous for no reason. They steal a kid’s shoes but nothing else, and they spend all of Halloween night stealing candy from little kids because…why not? They are weirdly written, inconsistent, and are a needless addition to the story that already has antagonists that are actually likable.
There are some sizable plotholes to contend with. How did they know which candle was the black flame candle if the Sanderson Sisters never told anyone? Why did they keep the witch house intact in an era when that stuff would have likely been destroyed? Why not just destroy the candle before someone lit it? Why would a museum have all the flammable materials out and about in a structure made of such old wood even with a sprinkler system? Why wasn’t Binks more violent when trying to prevent Max from lighting the candle? Why didn’t the burning in the high school kill the Sanderson sisters? How did no one die in the dance marathon that lasted well into the morning? Whatever happened to the mesmerized kids? Did Jay and Ice die in those cages? We’ll apparently never know.
The Toothpaste: Okay, I have to say the thing that made me the most uncomfortable was all the sex jokes. It’s not even the “virgin lighting the candle” part (though they do love to bring it up), but there are little moments. The bus driver is clearly a pervert, telling the Sanderson Sisters, “It may take me a couple of tries, but I don’t think there’s gonna be a problem,” and has Sarah sit on his lap, jumping up and down. Does anyone else remember this film being so sexual? I guess they were trying to appeal to the teenagers but as a kid, it totally went over my head. You can imagine my shock watching it as an adult when all the references clicked into place.
But ignoring all of that, the directing is absolutely abysmal. Kenny Ortega is famous for musicals, which makes sense because those are the only scenes that make sense in this movie. I’ll give you two examples. The first is when Max first comes home from school. He goes up to his room and begins to fantasize OUT LOUD about the girl from school, only to have his sister pop out of the closet. What’s his next move? To go to his drums and start rocking out, because in the Kenny Ortega universe that’s what people do. Then when Dani tells him that he’s going to take her trick or treating, he complains loudly, looks like he’s about to storm out but instead walks up the random stairs in his room and then sits down. None of this progression makes any sense cinematically and the room is set up in the weirdest way.
Another example: when Dani and Max are done with their encounter with the bullies and move on to the next house. Max tells her in a huff as she makes her way up the steps that he hates everything. As the door opens and the parent sticks their head out, Dani turns around and proclaims she wants to go home. Parent just slips back inside, not trying to see if everything is okay with the small upset child. Dani then huffs over to some random pumpkins, dramatically flops over to them and begins to cry. Max then lays next to her, facing her back and apologizes. The staging of this scene makes no sense — no person would ever act like this, let alone two people. This whole movie is like this — the direction is maddening, nonsensical, and amateurish.
Trick or Treat? Trick, unfortunately. While this movie has some good moments and freaking gorgeous cinematography, it’s not strong enough to overlook the boatload of awkward that comes along with it. I always thought that 30% on Rotten Tomatoes was a tad harsh, but it turns out it’s right on the money. Watch for how pretty it is, but don’t be surprised when it doesn’t live up to your memories of all those sugar-addled October nights.