Watcher in the Woods and Hocus Pocus; Or Disney Does Horror

Hello and Hallo-welcome to our second Twofer Tuesday, where we look at two movies with similar stuff and tell you which one to watch. It may be both! So come join our bloggers, Andy and Lilly, who remind you not to chant around abandoned church altars with your friends, and not light candles in weird houses unless you have lots of sex first.

We’re doing it a little bit different today, with Andy covering the first of our films, and Lilly the second.

Today’s film offerings: The Watcher in the Woods and Hocus Pocus

Woods are generally creepy as a rule.
Woods are generally creepy as a rule.

Andy: When you think of horror movie studios, Disney is probably a very, very long way down the list. Especially its live-action selection: You’re more likely to think Mary Poppins or The Love Bug than a creepy supernatural mystery starring none other than Bette-Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-Davis. The most surprising thing about this is that it exists at all.

The plot concerns a young family renting an enormous house from a cranky and eccentric old lady (played by Bette Davis, obviously). Their daughters Jan and Ellie (played surreally by Lynn-Holly Johnson and Kyle Richards, respectively a minor Bond Girl from For Your Eyes Only and the little girl from the original Halloween) immediately start experiencing weird things – Jan starts seeing strange lights in the woods and Ellie becomes a little bit obsessed with the name Karen.

Karen, is of course, the name of Bette Davis’ daughter, who disappeared into the woods 30 years prior, and hasn’t been seen since. And the locals are extremely cagey about what happened.

So yeah, the plot isn’t exactly original. But it doesn’t matter – this is specifically aimed at young adults, so however cliche-ridden it seems to us hoary old hands, as a standalone story it ticks along surprisingly well. It helps that it has a small amount of horror cred behind it – director John Hough also directed The Legend of Hell House, and one of the locations used prominently is Hill House from Robert Wise’s excellent 1963 film The Haunting.

The film isn’t by any means top tier – the effects haven’t aged very well, and the plot is, well, the plot. But it’s a good one for people who want something spooky to watch with their kids this Halloween, and for those who have fond memories of things like Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Goosebumps. It’s spooky and solid.

The one criticism I would level at it is that it lacks a certain amount of fun. There’s no real jokes or comedy, including black comedy, and as a result it can seem like it’s taking itself too seriously. Which is fine for younger people, but can be unintentionally funny for anyone over the age of 16. However, it zips along nicely and at 84 minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome. Recommended, especially for people who aren’t fans of horror.

Bippity Boppity BOO.
Bippity Boppity BOO.

Lilly: Moving on to our second film offering, Hocus Pocus, we jump right into the action in Salem, Mass., where young Thackery Binx is made to watch his sister, Emily, die before he is cursed to live with the guilt of not saving her as an immortal cat.

This film kicks off quick.

Hocus Pocus is the story of young Max Dennison, a new-comer to town who is just learning the story of the wicked witch Sanderson sisters when he accidentally brings them back to life by lighting a candle. A candle which is said to only work if you are a virgin, which is awkwardly commented on as being ridiculous at Max’s old age of…sixteen, was it?

Unlike The Watcher in the Woods, Hocus Pocus is a film that is part horror, part family fun film, meant to scare the kiddies and make everyone from six to sixty plus laugh. The acting from the three adult leads, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, is excellent and on point, and the child actors aren’t the worst, which is all I ask for in a film with child protagonists. Not originally lauded when it was released, Hocus Pocus has become accepted as a cult classic over the years, and rightfully so–it has witches, zombies, talking black cats, trick or treating, slight menacing of children…everything Halloween should have, really!

Something this film does really well is the relationship between brothers and sisters. You get the first Binx siblings, with Thackery clearly prepared to die for his younger sister, the guilt leading to a curse that lasted for three hundred years. We don’t see much of their interaction, but the simple fact that he chased after her to the house of known witches said enough. It was sweet, it was short, it was beautiful.

Than we have Max and Dani, a pair who are so real it hurts. From Dani’s calling Max ‘jerkface’ and Max’s disgust with having to babysit her on Halloween night, it is a beautifully realistic depiction of how you can be wishing your sibling both simultaneously out of your face and yet always safe forever from any danger. It’s fun to watch the development from loving one another deep down to openly showing affection by the end of the film, but hey, nearly having your essence sucked out by a witch can bring out the best in people, apparently.

Also, continuing on the family friendly point, I want to comment on Billy Butcherson, the long-dead former lover of Winnie. For those of you who have read last years reviews, or this year’s, or spoken to me ever, you know I don’t like zombies as a rule. I’m afraid of them, they’re too plausible in my head, and nope. Nope. Yet Billy, with his lips sewn shut and his head falling off? Love him. Love him now and loved him when I was a child. Hocus Pocus takes a classic movie monster and makes it accessible to children in the clearest moment of what family horror should be–he still climbed out of a grave, still was clearly the walking dead, setting up all those zombie tropes, but he is not gory and gruesome and traumatizing. He’s just right. He’s even a bit punk rock at times, such as when he flips open the switchblade to cut his mouth open and call Winnie “Wench! Trollop! You buck-toothed, mop-riding firefly from hell!” I mean. Who hasn’t thought to call an ex that? Billy the zombie for life.

It’s hard to actually compare the two films, mainly because one was more Nancy Drew while the other was Scooby Doo–serious paranormal mystery versus family fun witchy frolic isn’t really a fair fight. They are two very different films in tone, different in context, and for very different film nights. I can see avid readers, for instance, really liking The Watcher in the Woods since it is a mystery to be solved. I can see families enjoying Hocus Pocus since it is pitched just right to have something for everyone.

Andy: I would argue that The Watcher in the Woods could probably be shown to a younger audience. While Hocus Pocus is overall the better family film, it does keep bringing up the fact that Max is a virgin, like, all the time – it’s probably the only misstep. They are definitely two very different types of movies – one’s gently supernatural, the other glorious camp – but both are worth your time. Hocus Pocus probably edges out The Watcher in the Woods, if I had to make a choice, but both aren’t getting out of here without a recommendation.

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