“Hocus Pocus 2” (2022) brings home the Halloween treats…

*****SUPERNATURAL SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****

“Hocus Pocus” (1993)

As longtime readers of this column might glean, I am a huge Halloween geek. Even into my golden years, it’s still my favorite holiday. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. That said, I never caught the original “Hocus Pocus” in theatrical release. As I remember, it came out in July of 1993, and it’s tough to get into the Halloween spirit during a hot-as-hell SoCal summer. So, in late October of 1994, I caught it on cable (pre-Disney+, pre-streaming) while I was carving pumpkins. It couldn’t have been a better time to watch that movie.

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker liven up the adults’ Halloween shindig in “Hocus Pocus” (1993).

The story deals with a pair a pair of modern Salem Massachusetts teens, Max (Omri Katz) and Alison (Vinessa Shaw) who accidentally use a Black Flame Candle and a sentient Book of Spells to summon a trio of child-eating 17th century witches known as the Sanderson Sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy). The witches seek to regain their faded youth by draining the life-force from the hero’s kid sister, Dani (Thora Birch). The teens are aided by a black cat named Binx, which contains the trapped soul of a boy (Sean Murray) from the 17th century who was unable to save his own kid sister from the ravenous witches. The ending is bittersweet; the modern-day kids are safe, the Sanderson sisters are returned to oblivion, and Binx’s discorporated human spirit joins his late sister in a heavenly afterlife.

I realized the movie was aimed at a younger demographic (I was 27 at the time), but I really got into it. I loved the movie’s Halloween vibe, and the Sanderson Sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy) were an audacious trio of scenery-chewing delights. The younger cast members were engaging, as well. Needless to say, I was stoked to learn that a sequel to this adorable Halloween fantasy was finally on its way.

“Hocus Pocus 2” (2022)

Teenaged Winifred Sanderson (Taylor Henderson) protects her right to choose, and defends her two younger sisters Mary (Nina Kitchen) and Sarah (Juju Journey Brener), giving this ‘villain’ a decidedly heroic context.

In 1653 Salem, we see parentless Winifred Sanderson (Taylor Henderson), aged 16, refusing to marry John Pritchett, in direct defiance of the odious, oppressive Reverend Traske (Tony Hale). For her defiance, the rebellious Winifred is banished from Salem, with her sisters Mary (Nina Kitchen) and Sarah (Juju Journey Brener) taken away from her. A defiant Winifred later returns to help her younger sisters escape with her into the nearby “forbidden forest”…

Note: The young actors playing the teenaged versions of the Sanderson sisters are spot-on; they’re so good, in fact, that I could easily see them getting their own Disney+ spinoff movie, set in the 17th century. I also appreciated that this flashback gives sympathy and context for the Sanderson sisters’ actions, which feel a bit more justified, despite their extreme means.

“Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”
The “Mother Witch” (Hannah Waddingham) acts as both guide and maternal figure for the exiled Sanderson sisters.

In the moonlit forbidden forest, the three sisters are met by a bird who shape-shifts into the “Mother Witch” who then offers young Winifred the sentient, one-eyed “Book of Spells” for her 16th birthday. Winifred eagerly accepts this promissory gift of power, but the Mother Witch explicitly warns the sisters against casting a dangerous spell known as the “Magicae Maxima,” which grants unlimited power (the girls should read the fine print on that one). The Mother Witch then sets the Sanderson sisters on their villainous path by teaching them how to remain youthful by devouring children (as you do…).

Note: Just how the Mother Witch knows it’s Winifred’s birthday is humorously explained in an admittedly lazy patch of dialogue; “I’m a witch. I know these things.” I’d be interested to learn the Mother Witch’s backstory; is she an elemental being of nature, or another oppressed outsider like the Sanderson sisters?

Salem’s Lot.
Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) and Becca (Whitney Peak) try to reconnect with their estranged friend Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), the mayor’s daughter and unwitting ‘popular girl’ who misses her childhood sisters.

Cut to Halloween, 2022. It’s been 29 years since the briefly-resurrected Sanderson sisters terrorized 1993 Salem, after being unwittingly resurrected by the Black Flame Candle. High schoolers Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) make plans to celebrate Becca’s 16th birthday, turning down a Halloween party invitation from their estranged friend Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), who’s become the unwitting ‘popular girl’ after dating dumb jock, Mike (Froy Gutierrez). Cassie, who is the daughter of Salem’s mayor, Jefrey Traske (Tony Hale, again), misses the closeness she once shared with her two childhood friends.

Note: While some fans probably wanted to revisit the original movie’s (now middle-aged) characters of Max (Omri Katz), Alison (Vinessa Shaw) and Dani (Thora Birch), I enjoyed the all-new characters of Becca, Izzy and Cassie, whose story of sisterhood through witchcraft (which they later discover in themselves) offers a stronger parallel with the Sanderson sisters.

Sam Richardson is Gilbert, the local magic shop proprietor, and current ‘keeper of the flame.’

Practicing Wiccans Becca and Izzy drop in on the old Sanderson sisters’ house; that once-deserted shack from the first movie that has since become a kitschy tourist shop run by Gilbert (Sam Richardson), and his black cat, Cobwebs (a Binx fake-out). As the girls enter, Gilbert is wearing warlock’s robes, and regaling his customers with a Halloween tale about the Sanderson sisters…

Note: We later learn in a flashback that Gilbert was a young boy during the 1993 Sanderson sisters’ return, and actually witnessed them flying through the air on their broomsticks, thus, giving the impressionable young trick or treater his own fascination with the occult.

“You shouldn’t have…really.
Izzy and Becca are less-than-impressed with Gilbert’s ‘on the house’ birthday present, which looks bizarrely phallic.

After his Halloween ‘show’ for the tourists, Gilbert greets his two favorite clients. Remembering that Halloween is Becca’s birthday, the amicable shopkeep gifts her with a free (but ugly) candle for her annual birthday ritual in the once-forbidden woods. Accepting the misshapen, quasi-phallic ‘gift,’ Becca thanks Gilbert. Gilbert is also keeper of the Sanderson Sisters’ cycloptic, sentient “Book of Spells,” which lies dormant under thick straps, behind glass. Gilbert explains this isn’t to prevent the book’s theft–but rather to keep the book itself from escaping. Not quite buying Gilbert’s story, the girls head to the woods…

Note: You’d think Becca’s unseen family would’ve prepared kind of big shindig for their daughter’s Sweet Sixteen. That we don’t see Becca or Izzy’s parents gives this film an ’80s teen movie vibe, where the parents of clever teen protagonists went largely unseen, or were reduced to complete morons, like Cassie’s father, the mayor.

Sisters of the Moon.
Virgins Izzy and Becca unwittingly recreate the exact conditions to resurrect the Sanderson sisters…

Together in the woods, under a full moon, Becca and Izzy light the candle, which they quickly realize is a Black Flame Candle–the same sort of candle used in 1993. Since both girls are also virgins, they have unwittingly recreated the conditions for resurrecting the Sanderson Sisters from their prior state of oblivion

Note: Despite the harrowing consequences of casting their accidental resurrection spell, I appreciate that the movie shows magic and Wiccan customs in a more tolerant, post-“Harry Potter” light than the 1993 film, which had a more negative view on occultism. In “Hocus Pocus 2,” magic and spell-casting are seen as an avenue to power by the powerless, as it was seen by historically-oppressed women in years past. Like any form of power, the movie’s witchcraft can be abused, or practiced safely, depending on the user. As an atheist, I don’t believe in any supernatural/divine powers, but I can willingly suspend my disbelief for the sake of entertainment—just as I do with ‘the Force’ in “Star Wars.”

“They’re baaaaaaack.”
29 years later, Kathy Najimy (“Mary”), Bette Midler (“Winifred”) and Sarah Jessica Parker (“Sarah”) slip right back into character.

The movie then kicks into high-camp gear with the resurrection of the Sanderson sisters, whose last memories were of 1993. The sisters now find themselves deposited into this strange new world of the 21st century, as a terrified Izzy and Becca run back into town to to warn everyone about Salem’s infamous returnees…

Note: It’s been nearly three full decades since the first movie, and actors Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker all gleefully slip right back into their characters like no time has passed at all. Yes, the actors look a bit older than when we last saw them, but given that the Sanders sisters feed on the life force of children, their older appearance can easily be explained as ‘malnourishment’ within the story’s mythology.

She’s got a ticket to ride…

Becca and Izzy escape the Sanderson trio by running into a local Walgreens pharmacy, where the three sisters stare in amazement as the automatic doors seemingly part by command of the two young witches. Approaching the pharmacy, the three witches are amazed to see the doors magically ‘part’ for them as well (along with everyone else…). Inside Walgreens, Becky and Izzy distract the witches with cosmetics (containing ‘souls’ to make them appear younger) while they escape out of another exit. The Sanderson sisters are also in the market for new brooms, and Winifred finds a nice match for her old ride among the store’s Halloween goods. Without enough brooms in stock for the three of them, Mary and Sarah are forced to improvise…

“You were the wind beneath my wings…”

The three witches soon fly out of Walgreen’s, with Winifred astride her new broom, Sarah on a kitchen wet-mop, and best of all, Mary hilariously hovering on a twin pair of Roombas (like Marty McFly’s hoverboard in “Back to the Future, Part 2″). The three are headed for their old home, the original Sanderson house, unaware that it is under new management.

Note: While admittedly a shameless fountain of product placement on behalf of the Walgreens pharmacy chain, this hilarious sequence works like a charm, nevertheless. It also offers a means to confound the three temporally-displaced witches with newfound 21st century curiosities, such as smartphones, selfies and yes, Roombas.

Home sweet home.
The Sanderson sisters return to their former haunt.

Becca and Izzy arrive just ahead of the Sanderson sisters at the magic shop, where they learn that kindly Gilbert tricked them into reviving the Sanderson Sisters with his ‘free gift’, after he was compelled to recreate the Black Flame Candle by the Book of Spells itself. With their newfound rides, the Sanderson sisters quickly catch up to the girls at their old home, where they see a stack of campaign flyers belonging to Mayor Traske—Cassie’s dad, and Reverend Traske’s doppelgänger descendent. An incensed Winifred decides they will finally cast the expressly forbidden Magicae Maxima spell in order to destroy Traske’s descendent, and take revenge on all of Salem. The sisters then trap Izzy and Becca in their house’s basement by using magic to eliminate the basement’s ladder. With Becca and Izzy briefly trapped, the Sanderson sisters fly off in search of Traske, whose blood is required to complete the forbidden spell.

Note: I realize this is a fantasy, but how an old wooden shack from the late 1600s would remain largely unchanged in 22nd century Salem seems a bit of a stretch. Perhaps it was lovingly rebuilt to modern building codes? Okay, I officially need a life…

Doug Jones returns as Billy Butcherson, the cursed zombie who shared a onetime tryst with Sarah.

Before they left, the Sanderson sisters coerced Gilbert to collect the other ingredients for their spell, including the head of a former Sanderson sister lover—in this case, the easily-detachable noggin of hapless zombie, Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones). To that end, Gilbert digs up Billy, who has been entombed but awake since 1993. When asked about his “relationship” with Sarah Sanderson, Billy insists he and Sarah merely had a brief dalliance. Gilbert then promises to amend this historical inaccuracy in exchange for Billy’s help. The naive Billy agrees, not realizing it will cost him his head.

Note: I’m glad this is a comedy, because the thought of poor Billy being buried alive in the 29 years since the events of the first movie is too horrifying to accept otherwise. Billy Butcherson is, of course, once again played by actor and mime extraordinaire Doug Jones, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times in the last decade. A man of saintly patience, Jones is the kindest actor I’ve ever met.

Bitch, please!
The Divine Miss M drops in on real-life drag queens Ginger Minj and Kahmora Hall during their Sanderson ‘Sister Act.’

The scent of Tracke leads the Sanderson sisters to drop in on the annual Salem Halloween carnival, where they crash a Sanderson Sisters-lookalike drag show. Upstaging real-life drag performers Ginger Minj (as drag-Winifred), Kornbread Jete (as drag-Mary) and Kahmora Hall (as drag Sarah), the sisters introduce themselves to the crowd as the genuine article.

Note: I appreciated that this sequel featured drag performers, as Halloween and the LGBTQ+ community have enjoyed a long symbiotic relationship. The movie’s drag show creates a meta moment for its fans, much as the sci-fi convention scenes in 1999’s “Galaxy Quest” affectionately spoofed sci-fi fandom.

Mary, Winifred and Sarah are going to obtain the blood of a Traske descendent “one way or another.”

Using a hypnosis spell, the Sanderson sisters belt out a rousing cover of “One Way or Another,” magically swaying the crowd (as they did in the first film) to help them find milquetoast Mayor Jefrey Traske (who left the carnival earlier, failing to get his coveted candy apple). The carnival attendees, unable to break free from the Sanderson sisters’ will, find themselves marching in unison to the mayor’s house…

Note: It wouldn’t be a “Hocus Pocus” movie without the Sanderson sisters belting out a colorful old pop tune, never mind that there is no way these 17th century witches could possibly know the lyrics to late 20th century pop songs, let alone perform them without a band. Hey, it’s a harmless fantasy—you either buy it, or you don’t.

Witch Perfect 2.
Becca, Cassie and Izzy are reunited under less than ideal circumstances.

Becca and Izzy arrive at the Traske house, where they reunite with Cassie, who’s been grounded by her dad for following her idiot boyfriend Mike’s suggestion of throwing a wild, unsupervised Halloween party for the ‘popular’ kids. With little time, the other two girls bring Cassie up to speed before the Sanderson sisters’ imminent arrival. Hiding within the house, the girls manage to lure the Sanderson sisters into the garage, where they quickly surround them with a circle of salt, effectively imprisoning them.

Note: The imprisoning salt circle is a nice callback to the ‘rules’ of witchcraft seen in the first movie. And the clever way in which the salt circle is eventually overcome could only work in a 21st century setting.

This seems completely normal, of course…
Mayor Traske (Tony Hale) comes home to find three adult women trapped in his garage.

With the powerful Sanderson sisters temporarily immobilized, the teen girls make amends for their prior estrangement. A disappointed Mayor Traske arrives home earlier than expected from the carnival, and while the nebbish dad is glad to see the girls reunited, he’s puzzled by the Sanderson sister ‘impersonators’ trapped in his garage. Seemingly unburdened by even a minimal level of curiosity, Traske just…leaves. The Sanderson sisters are soon liberated by the arrival of Mary’s two enchanted Roombas, which conveniently vacuum the circle of sodium. Realizing the achilles’ heel of Becca and Izzy’s power lies in their friendship with Cassie Traske, the trio decide to use her blood for the Magicae Maxima spell instead of her father.

Note: My biggest criticism with this movie is that Mayor Traske (Tony Hale), the modern incarnation of Reverend Traske, is just too much of an ineffectual weenie to be believable as a character, let alone mayor, or father of a teenage daughter. Granted, Traske’s meekness serves the movie, but you’d think a man who just grounded his daughter for throwing a party would be more curious about three adults being held captive in his garage. Once again, it’s a bad case of ’80s teen movie syndrome, where parents have to be complete morons (or inexplicably absent) for a story to work.

Speak ‘n Spell.
The Sanderson sisters are about to learn of something greater than personal power.

Pursuing the Sanderson sisters into the forbidden forest before they can perform the Magicae Maxima, Becca and Izzy arrive to see Billy Butcherson’s still-talking head on a makeshift altar of the various ingredients needed to perform the ritual. Becca soon realizes that she has latent powers of her own as well, which she uses to distract the Sanderson sisters from their nearly-completed ritual in order to rescue Cassie. Desperate to stop the witches, Becca makes a successful last-minute appeal to the Book of Spells, prompting the book to escape from the Sanderson sisters’ clutches. The book then shows the girls a warning in its pages regarding the Magicae Maxima spell—those who do not share their newfound power will sacrifice what they cherish most. The girls decide to warn the oblivious Winifred about the spell’s price, but Winifred ignores them as her beloved sisters begin to dissolve around her. As Mary and Sarah are scattered to the wind, a grief-stricken Winifred begs the powerful teenagers to save her sisters. Unable to bring them back, Becca, Cassie and Izzy cast a reuniting spell instead, which causes a grateful Winifred to join her beloved sisters in oblivion.

Note: The genuine pathos of Mary and Sarah’s deaths, as well as Winifred tearfully begging to join them, really hit me in the feels, I’m not ashamed to say. This sequel’s ending packs an emotional punch equal to the first film (which saw Binx’s freed human soul finally reuniting with his beloved sister). It also gives much emotional depth to Winifred, as well.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Chants.

The new coven are then joined by a contrite Gilbert, whom they forgive. The group then notice that Billy is fading away; the withered zombie is grateful for peace, after centuries of living death. The girls quickly realize that all of Winifred’s spells are being reversed. Appointing themselves custodians to the Book of Spells, the girls’ new coven will heed the lesson ignored by the Sanderson sisters—that great power needs to be shared. As they leave the forest, a bird (the Mother Witch herself) soars overhead.

The End.

Note: There is a post-credits sequence, where we see the black cat Cobweb hopping onto a shelf where another black flame candle sits, hinting at the Sanderson sisters’ return…

Summing It Up.

Under the direction of Anne Fletcher, “Hocus Pocus 2” is deliberately lit in less-colorful tones than the original, as the story follows the classic ‘darker middle act’ structure of many sequels. A more sympathetic portrait of the Sanderson sisters’ emerges, when we see them as disenfranchised, powerless young girls living in an oppressive society where they were expected to be married off in their teens. The young Sanderson sisters are now presented as victims; refugees of a less-enlightened age. They are also played by a talented trio of actors (Taylor Henderson, Nina Kitchen, Juju Journey Brener) who are good enough to warrant their own 17th-century spinoff.

Taylor Henderson is well cast as a young Winifred Sanders, during a 17th century flashback sequence.

The fact that these women sought personal power only to have some control over their own powerless lives makes Winifred’s final sacrifice to rejoin her lost sisters all the more poignant. Despite their squabbling, the wildly outrageous Sanderson sisters truly love each other. Their madcap quest for unlimited magical abilities without the foresight to share them is a cautionary tale of power’s corrupting influence, even to amend a past injustice. The movie also highlights the value of forgiveness, as well. Oh, and to those “Hocus Pocus” fans who simply want a cute, funny, good-time Halloween flick with catchy songs? Don’t worry; all of those ingredients are in the mix as well.

Mary, Winifred and Sarah Sanderson once again find themselves the center of attention–and unexpected adulation, as well.

While some might lament not seeing what happened to the original movie’s Max, Alison or Dani, the trio of young teen witches Becca, Izzy and Cassie create a modern parallel with the Sanderson sisters that gives this story its raison d’être. With its blithely-delivered messages of sisterhood, sharing power, and strength in unity, “Hocus Pocus 2” is a Halloween bag filled with treats. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see a return of the Sanderson sisters someday.

Happy Halloween!

Meeting “Mary Sanderson” and “Billy Butcherson”

It was at San Diego Comic Con 2018 that I finally had the chance to meet a Sanderson sister; Kathy Najimy (“Mary Sanderson”) was autographing, and it was the last day of the convention. I was, of course, dressed in my Fred Flintstone cosplay (always a nice conversation starter) when I got her autograph, and we had the chance to chat a little bit about the making of “Hocus Pocus.” I once assumed that Mary’s famously crooked lips were a makeup department aid, like the inserts which gave Marlon Brando his famous ‘Vito Corleone’ jowls in “The Godfather.” I learned from Najimy, with a quick demonstration, that it was simple facial muscle control that gave Mary Sanderson her “Hocus Pocus” look throughout the long shoot. It was a genuine pleasure to meet her.

Top: Meeting Kathy Najimy at San Diego Comic Con 2018.
Bottom: Meeting actor Doug Jones (“Billy Butcherson”) once again at the 2019 IMAT makeup trade show in Pasadena, along with makeup artist Vlad Taupesh (right) and one of his creations (center).

I’ve also had the good fortune to meet actor Doug Jones (“Star Trek: Discovery” “Hellboy”‘) at various conventions, beginning with San Diego Comic Con 2012, where he, my wife and I had a nice chat about his mime career, and how it helped him to project through layers of thick makeups. He was very generous with his time. I later met Jones again at the 2019 IMATS makeup trade show in Pasadena, where he was attending with costar Ron Perlman and various makeup artists to celebrate the 15th anniversary of “Hellboy.” I told him how he reminded me of a latter-day Lon Cheney, the actor known as “the man of a thousand faces.” Jones was so flattered by the comparison, he gave me a big hug. I also ran into him briefly this past summer at Star Trek Las Vegas 2022, and once again, we had another quick chat, where I wished a quick recovery with a sore throat he was nursing at the time (ever the trouper, he still met with hundreds of fans). I must say, Doug Jones is, without a doubt, the kindest man I’ve ever met in the entertainment industry–or any industry.

Where To Watch

“Hocus Pocus 2” is currently available to stream exclusively on Disney+. At the time of this writing, the BluRay/DVD release has yet to be announced.

All images: Disney+

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