Hocus Pocus

(Kenny Ortega, USA, 1993)


It is always a wonderful moment in popular cinema when some smart operator hits upon the perfect way of joining two completely different genres. Hocus Pocus starts as a comedy about the witches of Salem and then leaps ahead three hundred years to become a warm-hearted teen movie.

The connecting point comes when young Max (Omri Katz) lights a magic candle and inadvertently resurrects the spirits of three abominable sisters. Why should this innocent gesture have such power? His little sister Dani (Thora Birch) is wise: "Because you’re a virgin, jerkface."

Although this is an entirely chaste divertissement – Max and his beloved Allison (Vinessa Shaw) never get further than taking a nap together fully clothed – sexual drives are never far from the surface, and this gives the film its frisson. The witches (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) are an extremely camp trio, and their taste for sucking the life force out of little children (girls in particular) has an intriguing edge to it.

Kenny Ortega, a choreographer who made his intriguing directing debut with the strange, ahead-of-its-time musical Newsies (1992), handles this material with a great deal of style. While his boisterous staging of the supernatural antics combines The Witches of Eastwick (1987) with The Three Stooges, the complementary plot centring on Max explores in a touching way the familial tie between brothers and sisters. Birch – eight years before her sublime teen apotheosis in Ghost World – is especially sassy and charming.

Although the special effects rendition of witchly magic indulges the usual Spielbergian orgy of lights and smoke, it also has an ethereal, exquisite touch reminiscent of the martial arts fantasies of Hong Kong cinema and John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981). And, although time travel jokes in which citizens of the past confront the mod cons of today are plentiful in pop cinema, Hocus Pocus contrives some keenly disorienting encounters for Midler and her cronies.

© Adrian Martin September 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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