I can remember a time when film studios and television networks really got into Halloween. I mean, sure, we always get the obligatory horror film (or films) that are released in October but I can remember when studios used to make Halloween programing for all ages, not just teens and adults who can get into an R rated movie. When I was little, 20-22 years ago, I remember how much there was that was Halloween related for kids. The Disney Channel would play all of their more macabe offerings, like "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Child of Glass" while Nickelodeon would have Halloween themed episodes of their regular shows and "Nick or Treat" where you could win prizes by answering the phone at the right time. It was a great time to be a kid and really amped me up for the excitement of Halloween night when I'd dress in a costume I'd spent all month getting together and trick or treat in our neighborhood (which was one of the best for trick or treat). Nowadays, Halloween has changed. Costumes have gotten more masculine or feminine centric (scary/butch costumes for boys...sexy/cute costumes for girls, no exceptions), fewer and fewer networks promote Halloween (and Halloween episodes of shows aren't nearly as good...including the king of Halloween themed episodes, The Simpsons), and trick or treat isn't even on Halloween night anymore (and usually, people carpool their kids around "nicer" developments rather than let them walk in their own neighborhoods "cause the candy isn't as good there"). Hell, it even ends before the sun goes down. I know much of this is a reflection of the times (it isn't as safe out there...poverty is more widespread)...but I still get ticked off that when I buy a big bowl of candy for trick or treaters and none show up because I'm not a choice trick or treat neighborhood (and then I'm stuck with that fun sized candy till March). Gimme the old days...in fact, if I had a time machine, I'd gladly skip Halloween now and travel back to Halloween then, when it meant something. But enough of my soapboxing...I'm here to discuss my own personal brand of Halloween programming. This week I will be writing about a film a day that is both perfect for Halloween (since it is coming up a week from today) and is appropriate for ALL AGES (so as to not leave out those little ghosts and goblins). Now settle in while we focus on my first choice for this week (and one of my favorite witch movies), Hocus Pocus.
The film opens in 17th Century Salem, Massachusets where teenaged Thackery Binx is awakened from his sleep by a whoosh as something passes by his window. He hears a strange female voice singing in the yard and looks across the room to see that his little sister, Emily, is gone. He follows the voice outside to see Emily running across the field to the woods beyond. Thackery sees a plume of purple smoke in the distance and realizes that his sister is in danger. He, like everyone in the village, knows that deep in the woods reside The Sanderson Sisters...a trio of ugly, old witches. They mean nothing but harm to children that pass their threshold, and so Thackery sets off to rescue his sister. He is too late, though, and is only able to watch as the witches suck the lifeforce out of the young girl. The lifeforce rejuvenates the witches and they grow younger before his eyes. Yet Thackery still calls the lead witch, Winifred, a hag. So as punishment, the trio turns him into a black cat. Shortly afterward, the villagers break into the house and capture the witches and hang them. Three hundred years go by and Max Dennison, a new student at Salem High School, finds himself wanting to impress Allison, a girl from his English class. After hearing the tale of the witches and learning that her parents have access to the sisters' old house, he convinces her to go with him and his kid sister Dani to investigate the old house. To further show off, Max lights the Black Flame Candle, a magical artifact said to revive the dead on Halloween night. Suddenly, the three kids and Binx the cat find themselves facing down the revived Winnie, Mary, and Sarah Sanderson and must keep their spellbook away from them until morning. Otherwise the witches will be free to live forever and to kill all of the children in Salem.
That description might not sound kid friendly, but let me assure you that this is one of the funniest Halloween movies ever churned out by Disney. It didn't do well in the theater given the fact that it had some dark subject matter and that it was released in the summer rather than in October where it belonged...and yet the comedy in this never fails to amuse. Certainly the central witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker, provide the majority of the belly laughs but the kid actors are also game. Omri Katz and Vanessa Shaw play very likable teen heroes while a young Thora Birch steals almost all of her scenes as the precocious Dani. Sean Murray is also effective as the sarcastic cat, Binx, who provides a lot of the exposition and humor on for the good guys since he has been alive for 317 years (he has a lot to say about the world we live in). Few elements in Hocus Pocus don't work, from the random but perfectly placed musical number in the middle, to the more suspenseful and horrific elements that certainly cement this film among the pantheon of horror flicks for kids (I mean, they kill a kid at the beginning...that's pretty dark for Disney). Yet the horror is done with such goofiness that it is impossible for any but the really young to be scared by any of this (indeed, I think they'll laugh more at Midler's over the top, bravura performance than they will quiver in fear at the sight of her) so there is no reason why this movie can't fit in at an elementary age Halloween party or on your 'suitable for trick or treaters' loop that you might play on your TV while handing out candy. Hopefully, "I put a spell on you" with my words and you'll head right out and snag this delightful little gem to enjoy this Halloween season (I love when I can work in a terrible pun).