Why Hocus Pocus is Terrible

I’ve been seeing a lot of Buzzfeed lists and the like explaining why Disney’s Hocus Pocus is some sort of classic and the best Halloween movie of all time. Most of this is based on nostalgia. As the kids who watched it grow up they look back on films like that with a great fondness. But this fondness is based around memories they have of watching the film rather than the film itself.

They ignore the fact that Hocus Pocus is terrible film full of unfunny characters, woeful performances, a plot that would cause the R.L Stine to shake his head in disbelief, and it’s a horror film that is about as creepy as kitten in a pet shop.

Yes, I can already hear so many people eager to get on their keyboards to write their hate mail. I admit, I was one of the kids who watched this movie on Halloween and enjoyed it. And yes, I will concede there is one good scene in it:

Well, OK, good may be a bit of a stretch. But still, it works.

I have changed, but the film is stuck in its silly mindset. The people reading this are not seven (and if you are, get off the computer and do your homework) but they still treat the film in the same way a seven year old child would. Why? Surely there are better experiences you can find. Why not try creating something new for yourself rather than relying on a twenty year old memory?

Anyway, in keeping with the Buzzfeed lists format that I’m seeing about the movie, I’m going to use this opportunity to list my grievances with the film.

1) Bette Midler – My usual reaction to Bette Midler is exactly like Snake’s in The Simpsons:

I flat out don’t get her. I don’t particularly care for her music and as an actress the only movie I’ve enjoyed her in is Ruthless People. I haven’t seen The Rose, but my point is that Midler has never proven she is capable of carrying a film.

Hocus Pocus puts Midler front and center to chew the scenery in the same way that Faye Dunaway did in Mommie Dearest. She spends the entire time acting like a drag queen and seems to have no concept as to what her character is supposed to be. Is she evil? Is she meant to be a seductress, sort of a campy Elvira figure? Is the fact that she’s been displaced three centuries the entire point of the film? I couldn’t say and neither could Midler. At least she’s having fun. She’s said in interviews that this is her favorite of her own films. (maybe she needs to watch Ruthless People again?) Fine – I’m sure Raul Julia had fun filming Street Fighter. But that doesn’t mean you are giving a good performance. Every scene she’s in creates physical symptoms that are best not discussed in polite company, especially when she pulls out that helium voice of hers.

Her character is meant to be the main villain but I cannot figure out her motivations, her wants, and what views. How did she become a witch? How does she feel about the situation she’s in? Or her sisters? What did she experience in Hell and how did she come out virtually unchanged? Darned if I know. Midler saw that she was supposed to act as a villain in a children’s movie and didn’t take it beyond that.

Also, that version of “I Put a Spell on You” she sings in the film is bad. When Marilyn Manson does a better cover of a song than you, that says a lot about your musical talents.

2) Kenny Ortega-Kenny Ortega is probably more well known as a choreographer and a stage manager. He’s a good one. Ortega created the dance sequences in Dirty Dancing and was also the creative director of many of Michael Jackson’s tours, including This Is It. But as a filmmaker…well, when the most popular thing on your resume is High School Musical, you’re not impressing anyone.

This was Ortega’s first film – I wouldn’t be surprised if he was picked by Midler after he worked with her on a concert. It’s clear he had no idea what he was doing. The tonal shifts between scenes are jarring and most of the scenes are directed on autopilot. Seriously, the construction of the scenes may as well have come from a textbook that Ortega read on how to make a film. You need to establish familial strain? Dinner scene. Need to sympathize with the new kid in a new environment? Give him a speech on how he wants to go home. There’s even a scene in which the kids try to warn the adults of danger, but are not taken seriously. This cliche has been a part of every single children’s book for the last, oh, half century or so. Ortega does nothing new. Now, I know that many first time directors fall back on the basics. It’s expected for any artist. But the point of this exercise is to point out how Hocus Pocus isn’t as good as its fans say. So pointing out the cliches seems just right.

“I also let this dog direct one of the graveyard scenes.”

3) The Child Actors-The child actors in this film are bad. This is due to inexperience. Most of them went on to do bigger things. Thora Birch got to do American Beauty and Ghost World before her porn star father ruined her career. Vinessa Shaw worked with Stanley Kubrick. Larry Bagby has had a great TV career. And Omri Katz was in that Dallas TV reunion movie and then disappeared. OK, I did say most. It’s very hard to judge someone at the beginning of their careers and I am sure that many of these actors look at Hocus Pocus as a stepping stone at best.

Which is also why it’s bad for this film to overshadow their other work. Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker managed to become famous for their TV roles and most people would know them more as Peggy Hill and Carrie Bradshaw. But the kids have no career left and are stuck as being the children whom Bette Midler wanted to kill. That’s a fate worse than death – it’s entering into Jake Lloyd territory.

Still, none of the kids give effective performances. Omri Katz hopelessly wants to be the outside student and the cool slacker character. Sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he’s happy. He flips between both in his scenes. Alison has no character to develop – she’s meant to be the eye candy for Max. But we never get a sense about what attracts Max so much to her. And Thora Birch was horror’s most annoying little sister before Dawn Summers came into being. Again, like Midler and Ortega, they were stuck on the first step and did not know how to bring any life to their characters or the film.

4) The Dumb Tributes to Vastly Superior Film-The spell book is clearly meant to be the Necronomicon from the Evil Dead series. One scene has the kid impersonating a radio announcer and calling himself Boris Karloff Jr. The two bullies are a sort of characters who had already appeared in countless Gen X movies. There’s a kid wearing a Michael Meyers mask in one scene. I believe it was Pauline Kael who said that people should never reference good movies in the middle of their bad movies. OK, actually, it was Tom Servo. But the point still stands. The Evil Dead comparison is particularly troublesome. That series demonstrates how to properly create the sort of over the top horror comedy that Hocus Pocus wishes it was. Seeing Hocus Pocus constantly through out reminders to it just emphasizes the flaws that are present in the film.

5) The terrible TV Movie Quality of the Effects, Sets…Everything-According to IMDB, Hocus Pocus was originally intended to be a TV movie for The Disney Channel. I believe it. The effects and the sets are barely passable for what was on cable TV at the time. They certainly don’t look like they belong in a high profile film from a major studio.

Now, I have criticized filmmakers who rely to much on special effects and most CGI bores me. Maybe the fact that the effects are so bad is meant to be a tribute to the horror films of Roger Corman. I doubt it though – that would require a degree of intelligence that is beyond the film. The effects never immersed me into the film. I was always aware that I was watching people make a film as opposed to bringing a world to life. Even Roger Corman managed to create a self contained universe with his ten dollar sets. I’ve seen more convincing haunted houses than what we see in Hocus Pocus. At least we get Doug Jones in an early role. That guy can make anything convincing.

“I’m just killing time before Guillermo del Toro gets famous.”

So I’ve got it out of my system for one more year until I see all the constant reminders that Hocus Pocus is the very definition of fun and that every single adult Halloween party amongst millenials isn’t complete without a viewing of this movie and someone losing a bet over who has to wear the Miley Cyrus costume next year. The latter at least is good for a laugh. But I think it’s time to let go of this movie and look at it for what it is – a film made for children who really don’t know any better.

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