Hocus Pocus

Well, I waited years to watch this movie, and now I’ve watched it twice in as many days. My initial viewing left me cold. Too many people love this movie though, so I decided to revisit it and see what I was missing.

The film stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as a trio of witches who in the 1600’s Salem, are executed for witchcraft, but in the early 90’s they are inadvertently resurrected by Max, a modern boy who doesn’t believe in Halloween or witches. The trio spend the night trying to reclaim their spell book in order to drain the life from all the children in town and live forever.

When I first watched this movie, I could not get on this movie’s wavelength. I couldn’t read the tone of the film. I wasn’t sure if it was a farce, a comedy, or a children’s cartoon. I read a ton of reviews from the time of its release, and found that I wasn’t the only one who had this issue. Roger Ebert gave this movie a savage one star review back in 1993. Not to compare myself to Ebert, but I made the same mistake he did. I took it too seriously. I kept looking for a verisimilitude and internal logic in this movie. The witches don’t understand what a black top road is. But later they are impersonating police and telling Max to pull over and show them his drivers permit. That stuck out to me as being very weird and inconsistent.

Watching the movie a second time with this in mind, I put that kind pedantic logic aside and just let the movies energy and silliness wash over me. I still think the tone is a little off, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time around. I found myself appreciating the zany antics and over the top energy rather than becoming exasperated by the over the top nature of the film.

Since my first viewing I’ve been doing a little research into camp. Susan Sontag wrote an essay called “Notes on Camp” in which defined camp in two categories, Pure or Naive Camp and Deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is when someone is trying so hard to be serious and to be taken seriously, that it falls off the edge and becomes silly. Deliberate Camp is when the artist sets out to fall of that edge become silly. The theory goes that we enjoy camp because it exposes the artifice in our world and our media. I think it’s fair to say that Hocus Pocus is deliberate camp. The bullies are so over the top that they fall right off that edge into silliness for instance. My personal preference is for pure or naive camp. I feel that deliberate camp is too obvious and in your face. This is why the bullies performances didn’t work for me the first time around. However, having done all this research into camp and discovering my preferences, I was able to appreciate those elements a lot more the second time around. Because whether it’s pure camp or deliberate camp, it serves to expose the artifice in our media representations. In that way, this movie succeeds regardless of my preference.

One thing I didn’t praise enough in my initial review of Bette Midler. She is absolutely delightful here. I mean her commitment to this role is amazing. She fills her lines and her movement with so many interesting little tics and inflections. She gives it her all in this movie, and that’s something I always love. She is all in on this character, and I love that. Also, her singing I put a spell on you is just fabulous. It’s a great big performance, and it deserves all the love and admiration she receives.

I actually enjoyed all the witches a lot more this second time around Sarah Jessica Parker is off doing her own little bouncy girl thing in every scene. and Kathy Najimy is this goofy placating put upon sister with the weirdest jaw ever. They are both developing their characters and making the most of every second they’re on screen.

Now this actually bothered me the first time around. And my issue is with how the director framed the sisters. They are always shot in a medium wide three shot. All three are in each frame and they are are all three doing their own bits at the same time. It just felt like noise to me. Midler is bopping Najimy with three stooges style slapstick. Parker is finding and eating a spider off to the other side. All while Midler is delivering exposition that we need to hear to understand what’s coming next. Because it’s framed in an objective static medium wide shot, I was never sure what I should be looking at. And I had trouble figuring out which element to focus on. I wished that the director would cut to a close up or a tighter medium shot just to tell me which element is the most important. Because as it is the static medium wide gives ever element equal weight in the frame. Important exposition is just as important as the stooges bits is just as important as the eating a spider bit. One the second viewing it didn’t matter as much. I already knew what I was getting into, so I could choose for myself which element to focus on. I could watch all the little side bits happening around the main subject.

All in all I enjoyed it a lot more the second time. I got more out of it. I have a much better understand of the movie and its fanbase now. It’s a very silly movie, and it gets better with repeated viewings. I still don’t love the movie. It’s not my cup of tea, but I appreciate it a lot more now that I’ve seen it again.

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