"HOCUS POCUS" is made for people like the woman who sat next to me at last Sunday's preview screening. At the slightest -- I mean, the slightest -- sign of suspense, her hands jerked and flailed with thrilled anticipation. It was like sitting next to a hummingbird.
The Touchstone Pictures comedy, starring witches Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, provided her with a cauldron full of hand-twitching opportunities. We're talking children getting the spirit -- literally -- sucked out of them, boys getting transformed into cats and bodies rising out of graves, among many things.
"Hocus Pocus" may not get your hand in a blur but its collection of one-liners and amusing situations could put you in a diverting spell. A studio-generated romp about three 17th-century witches who create havoc in present-day Salem, Mass., it's full of big-crowd laughs (thanks mostly to Midler) and suspense.
Omri Katz, a new teenager in Salem, his younger sister Thora Bird and Vinessa Shaw -- the beautiful classmate Katz falls for -- should appeal to their respective age groups. But the movie doesn't look appropriate for the very young -- judging by the two terrified 5-year-olds repeatedly escorted from the theater to get over the scariness.
In the movie, California newcomer Katz discovers that they still take witches seriously in Salem, particularly the legend of the Sandersons. Seems the three sisters, hanged 300 years ago for soul sucking, vowed to return for vengeance. It's believed that if a virgin lights a particular candle in the old Sanderson house at midnight on All Hallows Eve (and what a kooky party that would be), the Broomstick Three will come screeching back.
To cut a long preamble short, Katz (with Bird and Shaw in tow) lights the candle, and Midler, Najimy and Parker return from the nethersphere -- looking for a few good children to drain. With the help of a talking cat named Binx (the entrapped human spirit of a Sanderson victim), the kids get away with the witches' vital spell book, a tome of nefarious hexes and recipes, bound with human skin and featuring a living human eye on its cover.
The sorceresses, who'll die by morning light if they don't recite the magic invocation for mischievous immortality, mean to get that book by hook, broomstick or flying vacuum cleaner.
Midler is the best reason to watch "Hocus Pocus." As the lead Sanderson, she's the witchy center of the movie, with her Betty Boop lipstick design and that trademark, vamp-to-the-gallery, eye-batting shtick of hers. She's pantomimically assisted by Najimy (one of Whoopi Goldberg's nun sidekicks in "Sister Act"), who can smell tasty infants a mile away; and Parker (who was in "Honeymoon in Vegas" -- the earlier "Indecent Proposal") as the squeaky beauty of the bunch.
The movie has its amusing moments, as the witches discover modern-day America, from buses to people dressed up for Halloween; they mistake an old fella dressed up as Satan for the real McCoy. There are also some funny-lethal remarks here and there. ("Mmmm, shish-ke-baby," says Najimy when she sees a potential youthful victim.)
But the movie's Touchstone-meets-Crown-Books imprimatur ("movies cost too much, so we skimped on everything!") is all-too-obvious. This movie doesn't transport you nearly as well as the more bewitching "The Witches of Eastwick" and "Witches." This is another future videotape disguised as a movie. In the not-too-distant future look for "Hocus Pocus" in the rental-store bins, or as part of a Halloween "Trick or Treat" package (three bags of candies with "Hocus Pocus" for $5.95).
Director Kenny Ortega works his actors as if they were characters in a third-rate musical such as his recent "Newsies." Even in a drama that hardly needs realism, these characters seem wooden and unreal. Thora Birch's unconvincing crying act comes most immediately to mind. So does the little girl at the beginning who gets the life sucked out of her. It would really help the movie's dramatic purposes if -- after she's supposed to be dead -- she stopped fidgeting.
HOCUS POCUS (PG) -- Area theaters.