Review – Halloween, Zombies, And Midler (“Hocus Pocus 2”)

Let’s face it, you can’t really do a proper sequel unless you get the original cast back, right? As far back as 2014, Bette Midler and her co-stars, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, were waffling over whether or not they’d come back for a sequel. Well, through many negotiations, re-writes, and Covid setbacks, a second movie was made. But, was it worth it?

We start with a delicious prologue featuring the young Sanderson sisters in 1653 Salem, Massachusetts. Excitable Sarah (Juju Journey Brener), nutty Mary (Nina Kitchen), and a teenage, rebellious Winifred (a spot-on Taylor Paige Henderson). Soon, they all find out about their future in witchcraft from a powerful forest witch (Hannah Waddingham). This really should have been the feature film alone! We then pick up 29 years after the events of the first film, where the adult Sanderson sisters (Midler, Parker, and Najimy) have long been destroyed. . . BUT!

It’s Halloween and two high school girls are about to have their annual “witchery” fun. Aspiring witch Becca (Whitney Peak), and her quirky friend, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), are besties, but have been estranged from their former friend, the mayor’s daughter, Cassie Traske (Lilia Buckingham), after she got a silly jock boyfriend. Anyway, Becca & Izzy go to the Olde Salem Magic Shoppe (no more Sanderson Sisters Museum) and talk to their friend and entertaining owner, Gilbert (Sam Richardson). After he gives a nice exposition dump, the girls are given a black candle and faster than you can say, “it’s sequel time!”, they resurrect the Sanderson sisters! And they’re singing!!

Wanting to kill children again, Becca & Izzy tell the sisters they’re 40 and try to lure them away from their murderous ways. But soon they catch wise and the sisters locate the precious spell book (from the first movie) at Gilbert’s store. Winifred’s (Midler) main goal is no longer murdering children, but summoning a spell from the book that will grant her unlimited power, but first, she’ll need several key ingredients for that. She pulls a Wicked Witch of the West death threat on Gilbert to get them, including digging up the zombie, Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones).

Meanwhile, as the Sanderson girls are flying around town looking for Jefry Traske (Tony Hale), the Mayor of Salem, Becca & Izzy are desperately trying to stop them. They finally ingratiate their lost friend, Cassie, into their crazy quest. Of course, there’s always time for the Divine Miss M to give an impromptu concert (“One Way Or Another”) to a spell-bound audience. As much as I didn’t like the first movie, I have to admit I enjoyed this sequel, even though it was riddled with major plot holes and inconsistencies. But one could expect this from newbie Jen D’Angelo, as this is her very first screenplay. D’Angelo usually writes for TV (Workaholics, Young Rock, LA to Vegas), so you can see where the hiccups were.

Nonetheless, this generic story is fast-paced, fun, and has many callbacks to the 1993 movie, but sadly doesn’t bring back Binx the talking cat or any of the original kids. Director Anne Fletcher (The Guilt Trip, Hot Pursuit) doesn’t do anything new or special, but does manage to give this movie a lively, energetic pace with some great performances. And you can tell just by watching Midler, Parker, and Najimy. You can see it on their faces, as they are easily having the times of their lives recreating their roles. Midler, singing and acting like a kid again, is pure enjoyment, as are Najimy and Parker, who stepped up their comedic game. They put a smile on your face without even trying.

Whitney Peak is an all-star; why doesn’t she have a TV show? She’s polished and shows no pretension, while her co-star, Belissa Escobedo, is the perfect comic best friend. Richardson is the poor-mans Bernie Mac and does a wonderful job, and it’s great to see alien & character actor Doug Jones finally get more screen time as Billy. Okay, so this film jumps all over the map tonally, makes no sense at times, and has flaws, but doggone, I found it far more enjoyable than the first one. And ya gotta give it up for young Taylor Paige Henderson for flawlessly aping Bette Midler as a teenager. Her performance (brief as it was) is the highlight of the movie.

**Now streaming on Disney +

Hocus Pocus (1993)

A critical and box office disaster, this Halloween offering obtained a cult following only after its home video release and repeated TV viewing. Well, I guess that’s one way to resurrect a mediocre film, huh?

In one of Walt Disney Pictures darker openings, we start with a prologue about the wacky, but evil Sanderson sisters; three witches living in 1693 Salem, Massachusetts. After they straight-up murder a little girl by extracting her youthful essence so they can become more beautiful, the ladies are thwarted by the child’s teenage brother, Thackery Binx (Sean Murray). The sisters turn him into a cat just before they themselves are caught and hung. Yeah, like I said. . . dark! Anyway, we then fast-forward 300 years to 1993 Salem and are introduced to teen Max Dennison (Omri Katz), a California transplant who has the hots for rich girl & classmate, Allison (Vinessa Shaw).

After being accosted by two lame-brain bullies named Jay & Ice (Tobias Jelinek & Larry Bagby), Max (reluctantly) takes his cute little sister, Dani (Thora Birch), trick or treating and meets up with Allison who invites them to the closed Sanderson Sisters Museum. It’s there that Max accidentally conjures the three witches back from the dead: dim-witted and excitable Sara (Sarah Jessica Parker), barking mad Mary (Kathy Najimy) who can smell children, and their leader, buck-toothed and blood-thirsty Winifred (Bette Midler). Their plan? To kill as many children as possible and suck out their essence before the sun rises so they can remain immortal forever! Yes, this is a family movie! 

But hindering their murderous spree are Max, Allison, Dani, and Binx, a talking cat (an animatronic & live kitty voiced by Jason Marsden) who needs to stop a magic spellbook from getting into Winifred’s hands. This sets up the crux of the film as it’s one long chase between the sisters and the kids. The Sandersons are your ‘fish-out-of-water’, trying to adapt to the 20th Century with firemen, buses, candy bars, and mistaking adults dressed up like the devil (Garry Marshall, along with his sister, Penny). Of course, there’s always time for the Divine Miss M to give an impromptu concert at a Halloween bash in town because . . . reasons! C’mon, if you have Bette Midler in a movie, you better let her sing!

Anyway, after many a chase/capture/escape routine, the kids try to burn the sisters alive using their school kiln, but that attempt fails (a family movie!!). Soon, they find themselves on hallowed ground (the local cemetery) for the final showdown where the Sanderson sisters are all defeated and vanish for good. With screenwriters Mick Garris (The Fly 2) and Neil Cuthbert (The Adventures of Pluto Nash) who have both penned horrible movies, this movie really didn’t stand a chance, even with the terrific Kenny Ortega (the High School Musical franchise & choreographer extraordinaire) directing. It wanted to be a comedy, but the plot of killing children in any context is just disgusting and made this ‘comedy’ unfunny.

Oh, it tries, alright, with the witches being goofy, silly, and doing pratfalls, and adding a lanky, buffonish zombie (Doug Jones) that keeps losing his head, plus two very stupid bullies. But in the end, the dialogue (as well as the story) is forced and contrived. Interesting that Midler cites this movie as one of her favorite movie roles ever! And you can see it too as Midler is really having a ball with her character. . . even when she’s sucking the life out of a six-year-old! Go figure.  

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