The Double Feature: Hocus Pocus and The Witches
October is the perfect month for indulging in a double feature–particularly one of the spooky variety. Now you could go for maximum horror and break out The Shining and Paranormal Activity, but personally, I prefer my Halloween scares to be on the mild side. I also happen to have a soft spot for the Halloween specials and films of my youth. That’s why I decided to let my nostalgia guide me while picking out this month’s double feature.
I went with a pair of family-friendly films that I’m sure will be familiar to many of my fellow ’90s kids. One has grown into a surprise cult classic over the years, while the other is an underrated and surprisingly unsettling tale that has the potential to make your children terrified of paintings. Both of them set witches back a good two hundred years or so, but it’s okay because it’s all in the name of Halloween fun, right? (I’m hoping so because I would not enjoy being a mouse.)
Hocus Pocus didn’t exactly cast a spell on critics when it opened in theaters back in 1993. I can’t imagine why. It is quality cheese that has held up surprisingly well, as evidenced by its cult status. The film is about two kids, Max (Omri Katz), a teenager who hates Halloween, and his adorable little sister Dani (Thora Birch), who loves the holiday, who have recently moved to Salem. On Halloween, Max ends up tasked with taking Dani trick-or-treating, which results in a truly epic amount of moping on his end. He perks up a bit when they pick up his crush, but his mood quickly sours again once he summons the Sanderson sisters, a trio of goofy witches played with hammy zeal by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy.
Midler, Parker and Najimy are so over-the-top in Hocus Pocus that they swing back around to being brilliant. There is a particularly memorable scene where the sisters encounter a man dressed up as Satan and assume he’s their master. The women pout, screech and bounce around with an amount of commitment to their roles that is truly awe-inspiring. It’s pure, unadulterated silliness. Watching them chase the kids around town is a bit like consuming an entire pack of Candy Corn in one go. It might not be good for you, but the sugar high you’ll get off of the experience is just too much fun to pass up.
The film isn’t scary in the slightest (well, the creepy singing in the beginning might raise a few goose bumps), but if you loved it when you were a kid (or are currently a kid) it’s the perfect Halloween treat.
The Witches is based on the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, and it routinely gave me nightmares as a child. All the nightmares in the world couldn’t make me stop watching it though. It tells the story of Luke, a little boy who lives with his grandmother Helga. Helga often regales young Luke with tales about witches who hate children and banish them into paintings or turn them into mice. It’s only a matter of time before Luke begins running into witches himself. He ultimately finds himself tasked with thwarting the child-exterminating plans of a coven led by Anjelica Huston, a task that’s made all the more difficult when he’s turned into a mouse.
Unlike Hocus Pocus, The Witches conjures up some real scares. The witches themselves are far from friendly and they look quite gruesome when their true faces are revealed. The film is notable for being the last film Jim Hensen worked on before his death and his handiwork is on full display in the scene where the witches remove the restrictive trappings of their mortal coils.
The film has lighter moments, but what I remember most is the pervasive eeriness. Even the setting–a gray seaside resort in England–is a bit unsettling. It’s definitely a children’s movie, but thanks to the themes of child endangerment, it’s one that will make your kid think twice about accepting candy from strangers–especially ones with a purple hue to their eyes.
On its own, The Witches is fairly frightening, while Hocus Pocus is too goofy. Put them together and you’ve got all of the best bits of Halloween wrapped up in two films: the chills and the laughs. Plus, it’s interesting to contrast the films’ differing views on witches. In Hocus Pocus, the sisters are fairly ineffectual, but in The Witches they’re downright haunting at times.
The real draw is watching two Hollywood grand dames like Huston and Midler take on evil roles with such gleeful relish. Both ladies hold nothing back in their performances and achieve two very different, but equally entertaining results.
These two films hold a special place in my heart because they were Halloween staples for me growing up. Which movies from your childhood do you think would make for a great Halloween double feature? Share your suggestions in the comments!
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