Sunday, October 02, 2022

Double Double Toil and Trouble

Hocus Pocus 2

October is upon us again and that means horror movies and the October Horror Movie Challenge. The first film I watched was Underwater, which I wrote about when it was in theaters. This was the second.

I was a grown adult when the original Hocus Pocus came out in 1993 and I never had children of my own, so that film was never part of my childhood. I saw it on television one year and charitably decided that it wasn't for me. I wasn't really planning to watch the sequel, newly released to streaming, but it's had pretty good notices--something the original item never got--some of them from people I admire. So in the wee hours of the morning on the first day of October, I clicked play. Hocus Pocus 2 (2022, directed by Anne Fletcher) is considerably better than the first film, at least, as far as I can remember. It's been a while. As kid-friendly spooky shows go, I could get behind this one if I had little ones of my own. Even as a bitter middle-aged woman, I can see its charms. I'm inclined to Halloween candy more than is probably good for me.

The film begins in the distant past, when the Sanderson sisters are chased out of Salem for refusing to kowtow to male authority and for refusing a wedding match for Winnifred. Adding insult to injury, it's Winnifred's sixteenth birthday. They flee the mob into the forbidden woods where they comfort themselves in their favorite spot, which just so happens to be sacred to witches. They accidentally conjure the mother witch, who is initially inclined to eat them, but senses both Winnifred's resentment and her power, and instead grants her a spellbook. Soon, the sisters are raining vengeance upon Salem and the hated Reverend Traske. From there, they pass into legend. Three hundred years later, on Halloween, Salem teenagers Becca and Izzy are planning a ritual for Becca's sixteenth birthday. They're starting to bump up against the stresses of growing up and growing apart from their childhood friends, particularly from Cassie, who was the third member of their coven before taking up with her meatheaded boyfriend. Rather than celebrate with Becca and Izzy, Cassie is throwing a party while her dad's away canvassing for Mayor at the big Salem Halloween fair. In preparation for their ritual, Becca and Izzy stop at the magic shop run by The Great Gilbert. Gilbert is a magician and tour guide, too, and he regales his customers with tales of the Sanderson Sisters, who, legend has it, will reappear in Salem if a virgin burns a black-flamed candle in the Forbidden Grove. Gilbert gives Becca and Izzy a special candle, on the house. The two friends find their way to their favorite spot in the woods and light it. The Sanderson sisters are summoned. At first, they plan to eat Becca and Izzy, but the two of them talk their way into becoming their guides to life in the 21st Century. Winnifred is keen on retrieving her spellbook, which is under lock and key at Gilbert's magic shop, but on the way, they discover that the Mayor of Salem, Cassie's father, is descended from their old enemy Reverend Traske. Winnifred vows to cast the Magicum Maximae, to become the all-powerful queen witch. Gilbert, for his part, remembers the Sanderson sisters from their previous resurrection in 1993, and has arranged their return this time, much to his chagrin when he is coerced into becoming the sister's mortal helper. Meanwhile, Becca and Izzy scramble to prevent the sisters from murdering their friend's father and to prevent the sisters from casting their apocalyptic spell...

Hocus Pocus 2

There are basically two plots in this film, though they converge. In the first, you have the Sanderson sisters on their revenge tour. This film has a vein of righteous feminist anger running through it because if the opening segement of the movie accomplishes anything, it gives them a real beef against the patriarchy. This is a film about witches, after all, and the persecution of witches historically has been a means of organized state-directed misogyny. I keep seeing tee-shirts and memes in this day and age suggesting that rather than fearing the witches, we should rather fear those who burned them. Mind you, this isn't new to movies, or even to movies as a whole damned artform. It was a major theme in last year's Fear Street trilogy, also targeted at a young adult audience. Hocus Pocus 2 is gentler than most such evocations, but it's recognizable as a descendant of Witchfinder General or even Witchcraft Through the Ages. The film further codes the Sandersons as charismatic kooks in these scenes, which fades into a more sinister version when they're played as adults. The first few lines spoken by Sarah Jessica Parker--whose character is very much the clowniest of the sisters--are fairly sinister. The second plot--the coming of age stuff about Becca and Izzy and Claire--is a mirror of the first, because these three are very much on the same path as the Sandersons. The whole "witches getting their powers when they turn sixteen" trope puts Becca in particular in the role of either Winnifred reincarnated or, at the very least, as a variant of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In BOTH of these plots, there is an emphasis on feminine power and resistance. It's not lost on me that this film was directed by a woman, as the original film most emphatically was not.

Hocus Pocus 2

The Sanderson Sisters are more charismatic in this film than they were in the original, too, though that may just be projection on my part because I like their taste in music this time out. I didn't know I needed a version of "One Way Or Another" sung by Bette Midler, but Halloween is supposed to offer treats along with the tricks and this is better than a rock in the bottom of my goodie bag. The updated gags--Kathy Najimi's Mary riding the skies on a pair of roombas, for instance, or losing a Sanderson Sisters impersonation contest to drag queens--land better too for some reason, even though they aren't a lot different from the gags in the first film. Sometimes they're carbon copies, refined after being workshopped, maybe. You can see more glee in the performances from our trio of actresses, too. They seem like they're more committed to their various bits here (Sarah Jessica Parker particularly), and they play better as a result. Maybe this is all a result of that prologue, which gives them motives beyond just being evil witches. A comprehensible bad guy, a complex bad guy, is usually more effective than a designated bad guy. This is the equivalent of Magneto's past in a concentration camp in the X-Men comics. He started out bad for bad's sake in the first X-Men comics, but give him a backstory and suddenly he becomes the most engaging of megalomaniacs. Same here, though the Sandersons remain lovably dim.

Hocus Pocus 2

The trio of teen heroes in this film are more appealing to me than Max was in the original film, if only because they seem more like real teens than movie teens. Y'know, if real teens could do magic and stuff. They feel like a more benign and less Gothy version of the witches in The Craft, teen outcasts who find fulfillment and community in witchcraft. It's a mark of how likable these kids are that I didn't mind spending time with them when the big stars of the film were off-screen. Whitney Peak as Becca in particular has a natural charisma in front of the camera that hints at a future as a movie star. Doug Jones is, as always, a welcome presence reprising his role as Billy Butcherson. The script doesn't have any obvious clunkers even when the jokes don't necessarily land. I probably laughed harder at the Sandersons' reaction to automatic sliding doors at the pharmacy than I did at anything in the original film, and it's such an easy gag that you wouldn't think it would land. Credit the writers and credit film editor Julia Wong's timing. Comedy lives on timing, even comedy with the threat of eating children. That's witches for you, though. It's not like this was made by Robert Eggers.

Realistically, this is not going to become a favorite or a perennial viewing for me. It's not made for me. It's not great. It won't trouble my sleep or cause me to laugh for no reason a few days from now. And that's fine. It's still a surpise bon bon to start the month. A good omen, if you will.

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