If you were even mildly enchanted, amused, chilled, or any combination of those three, by the original HOCUS POCUS, I beg you to avoid the sequel at all costs. It is a travesty of a flick, and an insult to that darkly whimsical tale of 29 years ago. To remind you, it introduced us to the child-eating Sanderson Sisters, three vengeful 17th-century witches wreaking suitable havoc modern Salem, MA in revenge for the town having hanged them way back when. The original was no prize, with less than 40% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but the sequel makes it look like Citizen Kane.
Once again, it is Halloween in Salem, and once again a virgin lights the black-flame candle that will resurrect the Sanderson Sisters for one night only. This time, though, it’s not in the Sanderson’s old house, now a magic shop run by Gilbert (Sam Richardson), who joins the rest of Salem in celebrating the legend, and tourist bucks, of the Sanderson Sisters. The candle-lighting now takes place in the forbidden forest, and it’s performed by occult fans Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) as part of their traditional way of celebrating Becca’s birthday (sweet 16 this year) by performing some sort of ritual before binging scary movies. The quick-thinking girls distract the witches by sending them to a chain drugstore in search of ready-made potions, where the sisters are confused by automatic doors, but seem to know all about selfies. And it being Halloween, everyone assumes they are just another trio dressed as Salem’s most famous witches. They even end up in a Sanderson Sisters costume contest and, of course, lose.
The joke does not improve by being stretched over the nearly two hours of running time. Nor does the stale plotline about how Becca and Izzy grew apart from their former best friend, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), only to discover that they now must save her and her father, Salem’s mayor (Tony Hale) from the witches out to take particular revenge on them for something their clerical ancestor (also played by Hale in the origin sequence that starts the film) did in those less enlightened times.
Bette Midler returns as Winnie, the oldest Sanderson sister and the most powerful, dolled up like the cross between the Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen and a pantomime Elizabeth I. Also returning are Kathy Najimy as her constantly befuddled sister, Mary, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the ditzy sister, Sarah. They mug their way through an opus that is labored, obvious, and dull. Its high point is Hale, as the 17th-century cleric calling a spider 8 legs of sin. That’s the high point. Let that sink in. The only other member of the original cast is Doug Jones (and the wig he wears), as Winnie’s old boyfriend and current zombie pal of a reluctant Gilbert. This being Doug Jones, he has created a masterful sort of wobbly walk that a decomposing creature might evince when slowly turning into mush. It’s the most carefully thought-out component here.
HOCUS POCUS 2 offers no surprises, no twists that would qualify as such and, most disquieting of all, may be setting up a sequel. Or, a merciful universe forfend, a Disney series centering on Becca, Izzy, and Cassie. Please, universe, let this franchise go quietly into that good night and disappear forever.