I don’t remember when I first saw Hocus Pocus. While preparing this post, I was surprised to learn the movie came out in the summer of 1993. I was quite certain I had seen it long before that. Given when it came out, it is a toss-up whether it was a movie that my late husband (Ray) and I saw it in a theatre, or whether we didn’t see it until later when it was on cable or out of video. I know that since sometime in the mid-nineties that it has been broadcast during every October on ABC- and Disney-owned channels. It always gets high ratings, and the DVD/Blue ray sales have been a reliable strong seller every year. Which might make one wonder why I need to write about it at all, because it seems to be one of the most popular spooky movies, ever.
I love the movie. Spoiler warning: I can’t talk about why I think this movie is worthwhile without giving away a key part of the ending, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go stream the movie now!
In case you aren’t familiar: the movie begins on October 31, 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, where the notorious (and elderly) Sanderson sisters, widely believed to be witches, have lured a young girl into their cottage. They brew a magic potion which they force the child to drink, and proceed to leech her life away, making themselves young again.
The girl’s older brother, Thackery Binx, tries to interrupt the ritual and save his sister, but he fails. He is transformed into a black cat by the sisters and cursed to live forever with his guilt.
The townspeople of Salem storm the cottage and find the dead body of the girl. The witches refuse to say what has happened to her brother. The witch sisters are sentenced to be hanged, but before they are executed, the eldest with, Winifred, casts a spell which she claims will allow them to rise from the grave again—one an All Hallow’s Eve with a full moon, if a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle.
Jump forward 300 years, and Max (who will be our protagonist) is a teen-ager unhappy that his parents have moved the family to Salem. Max has an encounter with a pair of local bullies, which doesn’t make him like the new home any better. He is also not fond of the town’s local folklore about the Sanderson sisters and witches in general. He is really unhappy when his parents saddle him with the job of taking his younger sister, Dani, trick-or-treating. But early in the evening they meet a classmate Max has a crush on, Allison.
Because Allison thinks that Max’s skepticism is a bit too cynical, and because Max is anxious to impress Allison, they wind up in the old Sanderson Cottage (which has been preserved as a museum). When Max announces he is going to light the so-called Black Flame Candle and prove that witches are myths, a black cat attempts to stop him. Max manages to light the candle, anyway and the witches rise from the dead.
What follows is horror-comedy romp with some elements of musical theatre thrown in. The black cat is the cursed Thackery (who answers to Binx for the rest of the movie), who has lurked around the cottage for 300 years trying to prevent anyone lighting that candle. He can speak to the three kids, though know one else apparently can understand him. The kids flee, unsuccessfully try to warn the adults that the witches are back. The witches, meanwhile, have perform their life-stealing ritual on some children before sunrise or they go back to being dead, so there is a bit of a race.
At several points the witches capture one or more of the kids. At at least two points the kids appear to defeat the witches. Along the one a long dead lover of two of the sisters is raised as a kind of zombie/revenant who assists the witches in chasing the kids.
Eventually there is a dramatic stand-off in a cemetery, and with a bit of cleverness, bravery, and self-sacrifice, evil is thwarted.
The three witches are played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Midler steals the show, because all of the show’s comedy and menace are built around her character. The director, Kenny Ortega, said in later interviews that he told the three of them to play it as over the top and campy as if they were drag queens, and it certainly worked.
I’ve seen reviews that Max doesn’t really have a character arc, and I don’t understand how people can be that blind. In the early part of the film, the bullies are absolutely correct that Max looks down his nose at what he sees as the provinciality of the Salem natives. And when Allison scoffs at his scoffing, it’s clear that she sees his skepticism as performative. He doesn’t believe because it isn’t cool to be credulous. Just as he pretends not to care about his younger sister because, again, it would be uncool to feel warmth or affection for his kid sister. By the end of the film, that pretense is gone, and he doesn’t just take a risk to save his little sister, but he gulps down the potion and forces the witches to kill him in her stead.
It’s not bravado or a clever trick. He doesn’t reveal afterward that he only pretended to swallow it. He swallows it, the witches perform the next part of the ritual. We see his life force literally being taken from him.
Once the witches are defeated, we also get a nice pair of parallel scenes, one in which Max and Dani share a moment, and then because Binx fulfilled his mission, we see a similar scene between his ghost and the spirt of his little sister, who has been waiting for him to join her in the afterlife for 300 years.
Unlike the last campy & spooky two movies I’ve written about, this one came out after I was well and truly out of the closet. So I felt freer to revel in the camp vibe and all it implied. A few times when I’ve found myself in conversation with other queer fans of the show discussing it, I’ve found out that a lot of them like to ask the question: so which Sanderson sister are you? For the record, Ray was definitely and enthusiastically a Sarah. I had to admit that I want to be Winifred, but I’m really a Mary.
The film is funny. It has many nice spooky moments. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try. Maybe it will cast a spell on you, too.
When the original Fright Night came out in August of 1985, I was in my mid-twenties and preparing to move to Seattle to finish my college degree. It was a time when I had virtually no disposable income, so I very seldom saw movies in the theatre. Combine that with the fact that horror movies often give me nightmares (and I’m a sleepwalker, so I would get up in a panic during the dream and find whoever I can in the house, shake them awake and frantically try to convince them there is a killer in the house), I did not see Fright Night that summer. One of my friends did go see it, and his description just convinced me even more that I shouldn’t see it.
Over a year later, I and some friends in Seattle were going to have a movie night. Which at that time involved us pooling some money to go to a video store and rent a both a video player and one or more movies, which we would take back (usually to Club Chaos, which was an apartment share by two of those friends that had an enormous living room) and watch while eating a bunch of junk food. It was often the case that only a subset of the gang would go get the movie, so you were never quite certain what we might be watching.
One of those nights Fright Night was in the mix. At least one of my friends who had seen it before assured me that it was more of a comedy like Ghostbusters than a scary slasher film like Nightmare on Elm Street, so I figured it would be fun.
In the opening minutes, it does indeed seem to be more of a cheesy romp than a serious horror picture… but that’s because the movie begins with a movie within the movie. A cheesy vampire film which are main character is watching on television. The protagonist of the film is Charley Brewster, a teen-ager who loves horror movies, and faithfully watching a weekly show hosted by an actor named Peter Vincent who used to star in a series of vampire hunter movies himself.
Charley lives with his mom in what seems to be a typical 80s movie suburb. And someone has recently moved into the empty house next door. Charley hears strange noises and even a scream coming from the old house, and becomes convinced that the new neighbor, Jerry Dandridge, is a vampire who is luring women to his home before feasting on their blood.
Charley’s best friend is “Evil Ed” who loves those horror movies even more than Charley does. But he doesn’t believe the neighbor is a vampire. Charley’s girlfriend, Amy, breaks up with him because of his obsession with the neighbor. And, of course, Charley’s mom and the police also all fail to believe him.
So Charley tracks down the actor, Peter Vincent (who hosts the aforementioned weekly horror show at one of the local stations, so lives in the same city), and tries to get him to help prove that the neighbor is a vampire. The actor doesn’t believe him either, and points out that he’s just an actor—the vampire hunter he played was fictitious.
Amy, meanwhile, has become concerned about Charley’s mental health, and she hires Vincent to pretend to test the neighbor and then prove to Charley that the neighbor isn’t a vampire. And so the actor (who thinks this is some easy money) puts on his costume and grabs his character’s equipment bag and visits the neighbor. In the course of the discussion, just as he’s leaving, Vincent pulls out his pocket mirror while getting something else out of the pocket, and realizes that Dandridge, standing behind him, has no reflection.
While there had been a lot of humor in the movie at this point, and not much in the way of gore, the tone was paranoid rather than a laughfest. And that tension ramps up from this point, as the vampire starts stalking Charley, Charley’s mom, and Amy threatening to do terrible things if Charley keeps telling people about him.
This is also where we start getting more of the transformations and start seeing more of the death scenes explicitly.
Dandridge kills and turns Evil Ed and sends Ed to kill Peter Vincent and then Charley. The scene where Dandridge stalks and corners Evil Ed in what has to be the most labyrinthine alleys to ever appear in a movie, is remarkably chilling, even though we never see a hint of blood.
Ed doesn’t succeed in killing Vincent, who burns him with a cross and forces him to flee by leaping out of the apartment’s window. Ed beats Vincent to Charley’s house (Vincent is on his way to warn Charley), and they have a fight during which Evil Ed transforms into a wolf, but he still winds up impaled through the chest with a broken table leg.
Dandridge has, meanwhile, lured Amy to his house and has started the process of turning her into a vampire, trapping Charley in a room with her slumbering body so that she can feed on Charley when she rises. Vincent manages to help Charley escape, and then the two of them have a protracted fight with Dandridge, before eventually killing him and, since Dandridge died before Amy ever drank the blood of another, she reverts to human and all is well (or as well as it can be, given that a number of people have died on screen by this point).
The special effects are all practical effects, this is before the era of CGI, and some of them haven’t aged quite as well as others. Some of the creature effects looked cheesy even in 1986. I don’t think the effects are the reason this movie never gave me serious nightmares.
No, I think that’s because I spent a lot of the movie trying to decide if all the gay subtext was going to come out in the open. And also not feeling free to comment on any of said subtext because, while it is true that two of the people in that friend group were part of a very tiny number of friends who I had come out to only a few months before (though come out is a strong word, since it began with, “I think I’m gay” and quickly morphed into, “Or I’m bi—yeah, that’s it. Not completely gay after all!” which was so not true).
It was clear to me that Charley wasn’t into Amy or even the idea of making out with her as Amy was interested in him. There’s even a moment before Amy breaks up with him where she is angrily trying to get him to stop looking through the binoculars at the neighbor and come have sex with her, for goodness sake.
It was also clear that Evil Ed had the hots for Charley. I’m sorry, totally straight teen-age boys don’t joke about giving their male best friend hickeys and so forth as often as Evil Ed did.
The scene where Dandridge corners Ed in the alley and talks him into giving in without a fight is very much written and acted as a seduction. They never make it completely clear what the difference is, but just being killed by a vampire isn’t enough to make the corpse rise later as undead. The vampire has to choose to do it, and given how he talks Ed into surrendering, it seemed to imply that the other person’s consent was part of the situation. Though the later seduction of Amy seems to involve some sort of vampiric mesmerism, so maybe consent isn’t exactly the right word.
The movie ended with Charley and Amy back together, in Charley’s bedroom, where he looks out the window at the once again deserted house next door. He turns to Amy just as we see a pair of glowing red eyes appear in one of the windows of the house. And as the movie fades to black, the last line of dialogue is spoken in Evil Ed’s voice: “You’re so cool, Brewster!”
Vampires often are metaphors for sex, so it isn’t surprising that scenes where a male vampire is stalking a male victim will be homoerotic. But some of the earlier stuff between Evil Ed and Charley are a bit different.
Most of Fright Night isn’t played for laughs. My friend’s assurance that it wouldn’t be nightmare inducing wasn’t completely wrong… though I personally think that on a scale of Ghostbusters to Nightmare on Elm Street that Fright Night lands smack dab in the middle. It is one of the spooky movies that fairly regularly figures in my Halloween movie marathons, and I have to admit in no small part because I keep thinking how much better things would have gone if Ed had simply declared his love for Charley early on.
Just as I’m sure that the sequel wouldn’t have been the awful mess it was if Evil Ed had been the villain, as been planned. Alas, Stephen Geoffreys, who played Evil Ed, turned down the chance to be in the second movie in order to play the lead in another horror movie that flopped even worse than Fright Night part 2 did. Geoffreys appeared in a couple more movies that didn’t do well, then he spent the next dozen years or so appearing in gay porn films under a couple stage names. Since 2007 he’s been getting work in various horror and action films.
Anyway, with its 80s hair styles, sometimes cheesy effects, and the unresolved gay sub-text, Fright Night makes for a good popcorn movie, and not just at Halloween.
I’ve written more than once about the fact that actual scary movies give me nightmares. And I’m the kind of sleepwalker who, when having a nightmare, I will go around the house waking up everyone I can find and tell them very emphatically that we are in danger and need to come up with a plan to defeat the killer/monster/demon/alien that is trying to break into the house. So generally speaking (with some big exceptions) I avoid a lot of horror movies. On the other hand, I love Halloween, and I love spooky movies, particularly funny spooky movies. So this next confession will not surprise some of you: when the cheesy parody horror movie, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark came out in theatres very breifly in 1988… I actually went to a theatre and paid full price and saw it. My (now ex-)wife, and a couple of our friends accompanied me, and we all paid for the experience. One of those friends is a mostly-straight friend who said upfront that 75% of the reason he was willing to go was because he had lusted after the horror host Elvira (played by amazing Cassandra Peterson) since high school.
A few years later, one of the few disputes that I had with (at the time my soon-to-be-ex-wife) Julie while we were splitting assets was who would get to keep the VHS of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Of all the things to argue over it was one of the dumbest, I admit… I’m just happy that we got through all that and now, 29 years later, we’re good friends and can laugh together about such things.
As it happened, my first husband, Ray, loved the movie, and we owned it on VHS and upgraded to DVD before he died. And my husband Michael thinks the movie is funny and is more than willing to watch it with me about every other Halloween, so, yay!
But, let’s get to the actual movie. Outside of the movie, Elvira is a horror host (played by Peterson) who had a syndicated sci fi/fantasy/horror movie show on various cables for years. The movie proceeds on the conceit that Elvira is a real person, not just a character which Peterson plays, and when the local California station she appears on gets a new owner who sexually harasses her, she gets fired. But she isn’t upset because she’s about to open a show in Las Vegas… except her agent informs her that the show in Vegas will only go forward if she can put up $50,000 of the production cost.
Right after she says she doesn’t have that kind of money, a studio intern knocks on her dressing room door to tell her she has a telegram. According to the telegram, her Great-Aunt Morgana Talbot, has died and that Elvira is a named as a beneficiary in the will (“I didn’t know I had a good aunt, let alone a great one.”). So Elvira drives across country to the quaint town of Falwell, Massachusetts for the reading of the will.
What follows is a parody of several old horror movies (and a few Lovecraft stories), but even more a parody of all those movies about small minded small town people being against outsiders, et cetera. While there is one scene that is a direct take-off on Flashdance, the majority of the movie is a retelling of Footloose with Elvira in the Kevin Bacon role.
And the movie is funny. I mean, Edie McClurg should have gotten an award for her hilarious turn as Chastity Pariah, hypocritical council member.
Elvira’s great-aunt doesn’t leave her any money, just her house, her book of “recipes”, and her pet poodle named Algonquin.
The kicker is that Morgana was a powerful witch, the book is actually a very old and potent grimoire, and the poodle is actually a familiar. Elvira spends much of the rest of the movie figuring this out, and slowly learning the Morgana’s brother, Vincent, is the evil warlock who killed Elvira’s mother, Divana, and that possession of the book is going to decide the balance of supernatural powers for the next century.
In between, Elvira tries to iniiate a romance with the very hunky but virginal owner of the local movie theatre, becomes a hero for the town’s teen-agers who wish the town was less backwards, and has various misadventures trying to use the mystical book. I know the movie is set in Massachusetts, but some of the more jokes in the sequence where she mistakes a potion to conjure a demon for a casserole recipe resonated extremely deeply with my southern Missouri/Oklahoma soul, okay?
Part of the meta of the movie is that Elvira, despite being played by a cisgendered woman, is essentially a drag queen. And while what little other queer subtext is very, very sub, that 80s drag queen/queer camp vibe is extremely strong in the movie. All of the villains are either defenders of the old Traditional Family Values notions or the even more ancient Toxic Masculinity tropes, while Elvira and her supporters are champions of Everyone Is Valid, and Being True To Your Self is More Important Than Pleasing Societal Expectations.
Which is very queer. So even though the vast majority of the sex and innuendo in the film is quite hetero, there is simultaneously an extremely strong non-hetero message being promulgated throughout.
At the time when the movie came out, I was still trying to pretend I was bisexual, which I very dysfunctionally saw as being half-heterosexual. I was trying to walk an extremely difficult tightrope. And this movie seemed to walk a similar tightrope… but when I re-watched it, I began seeing that the tightrope was as false as Chastity Pariah’s moral superiority.
Eventually, the camp sensibilities and the sex-positive subtext of this movie was one of the many examples that helped convince me to stop trying to compromise my true self.
And years later, it’s just an extremely funny movie to watch during Halloween season. And what more could you ask for?
Many years ago the gaming group I was in rotated who was running the game and which system/world we were playing in, and most of us gave our scenarios titles, which sometimes we told the players in advance. One time I had titled a sci-fi adventure where the players eventually found themselves in a dark, twisty location being pursued by something which they weren’t sure what the something was, just that it had killed some other people, “Welcome to Your Standard Nightmare.” I didn’t mention the title up front, it was after we were finished that I identified the scenario, and suddenly we were having a debate on what, really, a standard (or universal) nightmare ought to be.
I was reminded of this incident by two different events recently. First, after a few weeks of working on my Halloween playlist, I took a dip into a couple of music streaming services to see what they were serving up on various Halloween channels. The other was a series of disturbing dreams I had in the wee small hours of a recent morning.
Quick digression: the psychological definition of a nightmare is an unpleasant dream evoking an emotional response which disturbs the sleep cycle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be scary to be a nightmare as far as psychologists are concerned, but it does have to actually make you wake up to qualify as a nightmare. So while colloquially we usually think of nightmares as bad dreams, usually invoking fear or despair, other kinds of emotions can be involved.
So, I’ve more than once had a nightmare where I woke up extremely angry. And that was very disturbing, especially during those initial moments of waking up where you don’t quite realize it was only a dream. I had a new one, this time, I woke up extremely annoyed. Three times in one night. The first two didn’t really have any element most people would think of a spooky: I was trying to set up some sound equipment for some kind of party or concert, and someone kept moving my toolbox full of patch cables. There were a number of people in the dream, most of whom I haven’t seen in person in many years. And they were all being uncharacteristically unhelpful. The second one involved someone I didn’t recognize who kept trying to make me go to this place I also didn’t recognize and pack up things that had been left behind by someone. Oddly, once I gave in, I recognized all of the blankets and towels (which were only a subset of the items) as ones that had belonged to my family when I was a child and a teen-ager. The third one was like a combination: I was walking somewhere intending to retrieve something I needed, and I noticed an open door of an apartment, I think, and inside I saw scattered around clothes that belong to me. When I was checking out the place and gathering things, people kept wandering in to try to take stuff from me—and they people each had these weird glowing eyes and I was absolutely convinced that they were undead or something similar.
Even then, when I woke up, I wasn’t feeling fear, but extreme annoyance that I had to deal with weird creatures and someone stealing my clothes when I really just wanted to go get the thing—whatever it was—that I had started out looking for. (And no, I don’t need any dream analysis. My subconscious is never subtle. I know what I’m feeling anxiety about right now.)
The thing was, even though my feeling at each awakening was annoyance—neither anger nor fear—there were still moments while I was waking up where I felt that disturbing confusion about what was real and what wasn’t. Which is its own kind of spooky.
Many Halloween playlists I see on various streaming services or that people post often contain songs that I don’t think are spooky at all. Many seem to be chosen because the title of the song has a tenuous connection to some spooky concepts, while the lyrics of the song are often just standard pop fare.
I happen to believe that a Halloween playlist should consist of tracks where the content of the track has some connection to ideas, moods, et cetera, that people associate with Halloween, trick or treating, monsters, and so forth. I make exceptions for instrumental tracks from movies and such that I personally find spooky. I realize that most of those don’t seem spooky if you don’t recognize where they are from (but some are very eery and really set a spooky mood even when you don’t recognize their source). Anyway, here is my 2018 Halloween playlist:
1. “It’s alive!” From the Young Frankenstein soundtrack. This isn’t a song, it’s the dialog for one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Dr Frahnk-in-steen finds out that he put an abnormal brain in the body of his creation.
2. “Monster Mash” A blue grass cover of the classic Halloween song by a band called Hayseed Dixie. It’s quite fun.
3. “Science Fiction Double Feature” From the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the campy lyrics describe several classic sci fi thriller movies.
4. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown. “Everybody run! The Homecoming Queen’s got a gun!” and “…it’s like the whole school was totally coked or something!”
5. “Anything Can Happen On Halloween” by Tim Curry from the movie The Worse Witch. A fun song.
6. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (with narration in the middle by Vincent Price). A classic for Halloween. And you can dance to it!
7. “GhostBusters (I’m Not Afraid” by Fallout Boy. An interesting cover/re-imagining of the original Ghostbusters them recorded for the new GhostBusters movie.
8. “Rest in Peace” from Once More, With Feeling, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode. “Whisper in a dead man’s ear doesn’t make it real.”
9. “Bad Moon Rising” by Mourning Ritual. A very creepy re-imagining of the old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit that I first heard in one of the spookiest, creepiest episodes of the Teen Wolf TV series. I can’t hear this song without reliving the scenes where Void Stiles was doing various horrific things.
10. “Monster Mash (featuring Black Magic” by Halloween FX Productions. A cute cover of the Halloween classic.
11. “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” from Little Shop of Horrors just fun!
12. “Haunted Honeymoon Main Title” by John Morris. A spooky instrumental from one of my favorite comedies ever. Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, and Dom DeLuis in a hilarious send-up of 30s mystery radio shows and spooky forties movies.
13. “Teen Wolf Main Theme” by Dino Meneghin & Bloody Beetroots. The theme for the Teen Wolf series is just some really dramatic music.
14. “Theme from the Ghost and Mr. Chicken” – if you aren’t familiar with this comedy send up of various Hitchcock-esque movie tropes starring Don Knotts, you really need to Netflix it or something. And the organ music is suitably spooky and silly, at the same time.
15. “”Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” Yes, the theme song from the original cartoon series.
16. “Dark Shadows” the original eerie, spooky, haunting theme song from the ’60s gothic horror soap opera.
17. “Funeral March of a Marionette” an orchestral piece which was used as the theme for the old Alfred Hitchcock show.
18. “The Munster’s Theme” by Jack Marshall. A tiki-fied cover of the them song for the 1960s horror comedy series.
19. “Mamushka” by Raul Julia and Marc Shaiman. The silly show-stopper song from the theatrical Addams Family movie.
20. “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers. The original, classic Halloween Novelty song.