November 21, 2011
If you’re a regular reader, you know I love a bad movie. Give me cheese. Give me ham. Serve it with some well-fermented low budget and you’ve got a winner!
Every so often, though, I come across a movie that isn’t bad, but it has so many things that could easily qualify it as Rifftrax material. However, a weird alchemy of performance, writing, and just the right amount of cheese make it into a wonderful movie that actually gets better with age.
One such movie is Hocus Pocus.
Wait, I know what you’re thinking.
“The Disney movie with Bette Midler?”
Yeah, that’s the one. Mary and I actually sat down to watch it this weekend out of pure nostalgia, and the more we watched it, the more we realized how smart and genuinely funny it was. Yes, there was a drink or two involved, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a movie you should watch if you want to learn a few things about writing.
Take Refuge in Audacity
The Sanderson Sisters are so completely over the top and fit so many of the standard “witch” stereotypes that they probably seem like a minstrel show for Wiccans. The movie is historically inaccurate to the point of being a Fox News documentary.
And I’m fine with that.
Winifred (played by Bette Midler) is so hammy that it works. If you’re going to have a villain be over-the-top, go all the way. Nothing kills the mood more than a half-assed attempt at villainy that ends up coming off weak because it was supposed to be taken seriously. Unless a character is supposed to be goofy, at least make him or her aware of the insane amounts of scenery they’re chewing. Winifred is as stereotypically villainous as it gets, but she’s very much aware of her image and plays it off every chance she gets.
Not to mention the fact that she’s genuinely dangerous and one of the first things we see her do is drain a child of life and sentence her brother to an eternity as a cat.
If you’re going to have ham, might as well have the whole pig.
Aim at Kids, Hit the Adults
I first saw this movie when it came out in 1993, then again a few years later, but it really wasn’t until I saw it this weekend that I realized just how adult a lot of the humor was. Seriously, the entire premise starts with our lead character getting made fun of for being a virgin, then lighting the candle that brings the Sanderson Sisters back.
After this, everyone from the talking cat to his little sister (played by a VERY young Thora Birch) points out he’s a virgin every chance they get. What are the odds her character even knew what a virgin was?
Then, you have Sarah, the ditzy witch who is about as sharp as a turkey sandwich. She easily comes off as child-like and whimsical… until she starts making cracks about hanging kids on hooks and playing with them. Throw in the fact that she’ll apparently mount anything with a Y-chromosome, and you get someone who may appear harmless to the little kids watching her while appearing to embody every aspect of lust and the cruelty of childhood.
Your Readers are Smart
Nothing kills the mood more like the reader calling out things your characters should have done. The Sanderson Sisters are bumbling Disney villains most of the time. The heroes are two high-schoolers, one 10-year-old, and a talking cat from Colonial America.
But they do a lot of things that make sense. The kids are smart enough to recognize they have a few advantages over the witches, such as their knowledge of modern technology. Max takes early advantage of this by using a lighter to set off a fire-suppression system and pretend it was a spell to the newly-arrived witches. He later uses a car’s headlights to simulate sunlight and make them think they’re about to die. Plus, they actually try to warn the police and the adults about the situation.
Of course, running around and saying you just resurrected 300-year-old witches that are part of local lore does you make sound like you’ve been licking frogs.
The Sanderson Sisters also have their moments. After they realize everyone is really in costumes and they get made at a grand party, they play it off as though they too are in costumes and sing a song that’s really a component to a spell that enchants a good chunk of the adults in town.
There are moments of stupidity on all sides, of course, but the rest of the movie really is put together very well and does so many things that redeem its flaws. Remember to not be afraid to make things over the top. If you have to dial it down later, so be it, but better to have more than you need than to have to try and make things more dramatic or funny later.
Hocus Pocus should have been on my Halloween movies list. It’s one of those movies that really just goes with the premise and plays with it. It’s got stuff for adults, for kids, and it’s just fun.
Let’s enjoy Bette Midler one more time, shall we?