In Quaran-Scenes, writers will take a look at some of their favorite scenes from cinema: how and why they “work,” and what about those scenes they love so much. Find past columns here.
“Thank you, Max, for that marvelous introduction…”
Winnifred Sanderson says this in a voice that is at once a purr, a coquettish invitation, and the entrance of a diva. Immaculately encased in the amber of ’90s nostalgia, Hocus Pocus, the strange Disney fish out of water, quasi-kid’s horror movie about the return of a trio of witches to the Salem town they once terrorized, has burrowed itself into the consciousness of people in their 20s and 30s, effectively making the case that everything and nothing can be a cult classic. Having flopped in its initial summer of 1993 release, Hocus Pocus has transcended binary quality rubrics, hovering between niche and mainstream appeal, given its long gestating, but abnormally powerful ability to be commodified as if it were some more tasteful, easily digestible artifact not unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Around October, the witches are everywhere, a funny feedback loop of life imitating art, its iconography so broadly available, it threatens to be as cloying as West Coast transplant Max (Omri Katz) finds it upon his arrival in Salem. Oh, the spell of Disney!
The bizarrely plotted and paced film’s enduring popularity is due, in no small part, to Bette Midler, whose career had spanned across music and film, including the commercial success of Beaches. And after The Rose, loosely inspired by the rise and fall of Janis Joplin, perhaps it’s Hocus Pocus that is closest to being some kind of meta-film about its star’s, if not career, than at least persona and performative grammar. Sporting kewpie doll lips, beaver-like buck teeth, a deconstructed beehive of a ’do, and a cloak that indicates both sophistication and salaciousness, the former gay bathhouse singer is at home camping it up in witchy drag.
Spending much of the running time trying to wrench the youth away from children with assistance from her sisters Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy), the trio’s performances are so deliriously from another world, not even another century. Even within the context of their original late 17th century shenanigans, there’s an archness to their performance, as if they’re wrapping their spindly fingers around convention and dutifully, deliciously pulling it apart.
If so much of the film, explicitly or otherwise, is hinged on Midler’s star persona, a brassy brazenness that manifests as a reincarnation of Mae West, Hocus Pocus becomes slyly self-reflexive. At its essence, Hocus Pocus is a kind of celebrity, the kind that transcends into iconography, where the idea of the thing is both how it’s kept alive and how it is more powerful than the thing itself. The Sanderson Sisters’ legend, not the sisters themselves, haunts the consciousness of Salem, but their danger has been watered down to frivolous oral history in high school history classes and ramshackle costumes for kids. And when the legend becomes literal and alive again, no one really cares. No one cares that much to delineate between the signifier and the signified, the Sanderson Sisters themselves and the mere idea of them.
They, too, are unable to make sense of the real and the imagined, bumping into kids dressed up as goblins and hanging out with a schlubby townie in a cheapo Devil costume mistaking him for their master, Satan. So early into the ’90s, Reaganomics reanimating the allure of suburban living, the most frightening of monsters could be easily quelled and denied its power by a simple purchase. Realness didn’t matter; capital did. People did care about Midler’s career, for the record—her 1990 album Some People’s Lives was her most successful at the time, she had a healthy film career, and she kept her divinity on tour.
Which makes Winnie’s number in the middle of the film all the more curious; it’s a backhanded spring, acrobatic in its gaze, towering in its embrace of artifice, subversive in its outré nature, ironic in its cheeky faux-magic. Lest it be mistaken for a pedestrian Disney musical number, Hocus Pocus’ most ambitious play with audience, spectacle and celebrity plays with both concert film and movie musical aesthetics, shifting its position as the witches make the number a directive. At the Town Hall Dance, Max and his gang (with Thora Birch as his younger sister Dani, Vinessa Shaw as his crush Alison, and Jason Marsden as Thackery Binx in the body of a talking black cat), attempt to warn the partygoers of the return of the Sanderson Sisters, also contending with how embarrassing their parents are (another touch with Halloween as the ultimate holiday where people can augment and modify indelible images and personae). After stealing the microphone from a singing skeleton emcee, his warning goes unheeded, but that doesn’t stop the sisters from taking the spotlight.
The spotlight, the attention, the audience feels both new and familiar to Winnie, as she takes the reins, curling her lip and chanting, “I put a spell on you.” She unsheathes her nails raising them in the air, not so much practiced as intuitive and self-assured. The spotlight changes color, as if the entire tech team and the venue not only has accommodated these women, but were expecting them. The costumed guests are rapt, laughing at every line Winnie wants them to, putty in her clawed hands. She waggles her head knowingly, making her way to the stage, transforming the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song from jinx to semi-autobiographical, theatrical incantation. The song’s eroticism is Frankensteined back in, like it was neutered by Disney and then reinserted, with a wink and a saucy remark à la West, by Midler herself, her hand choreography both accenting and solidifying its lascivious connotations of ownership.
Up on stage, she forcefully cracks a joke, the clarity of her own stage presence bewildering, barking, “Hello, everybody! My name is Winifred! What’s yours?” Embedded in this funhouse mirror of a scene, where everyone and no one confronts the magisterial celebrity of the Sanderson Sisters, is a kind of decayed irony; her little jab at Max references Midler’s turn as Mama Rose in a television adaptation of the Sondheim musical Gypsy, wherein she says in the fugue-fueled rage state in “Rose’s Turn”, “Hello, everybody! My name is Rose! What’s yours?”, itself a callback to the cutesy, syrupy introductions her daughters would make in their vaudeville numbers. And, in a way, the reference is more closely linked than a throwaway in-joke for Midler fans: not unlike Freddy Krueger circa Freddy vs Jason, their journey to taking back power is precisely because of a sort of neglect, that their ur-urban legend status has deflated their influence and deadliness. And while Mama Rose isn’t dangerous, per se, the fact that she’s been pushed to the sidelines in spite of how much she (thinks she) has sacrificed suggests a similar kind of dwindling of capacity. Doesn’t she, too, cast a spell over bookers to get her Baby June and her Newsboys on the vaudeville stage?
The dramatic irony of who knows who’s real and who thinks the sisters are some random actors in performance pivots the scene to satisfyingly puzzle-like; it’s a space that’s already has made room for entertainment, and these women could have easily been the surprise cameo to cap off the night. Everyone knows who these women “are” but not who they are, and the difference between the two ceases to matter. Yes, it is a show-stopping number, but, in a way, it’s a little prophetic. The closer one comes in proximity to fame, and the easier it is to achieve, the more demystified it becomes.
What threatened, but maybe ultimately helped, the Sanderson Sisters is not dissimilar to how the legacy of their film has been so carefully maintained against the odds: the Sanderson sisters slept comfortably as nostalgia, an artifact to add seasonal flavor, whose material tactility is besides the point so long as it can be trotted out every year. No longer contained as niche guilty pleasure, Winnie’s (and Walt’s, too) spell, blurring the lines between performer and spectator, old and new, remains unbroken. And there’s no chance a virgin will save us now.