Halloween movie classics for scaredy cats

Review: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Hocus Pocus" bring the girl power.

Joss Whedon’s 1992 teen flick Buffy the Vampire Slayer laid the ground work for his television show of the same name. The most popular girl in her high school, Buffy must move from vapid cheerleader to vampire hunter. In every age, one teenage girl is chosen to defend humanity from the vampires. When one slayer dies, the next is summoned.

Buffy (Kristy Swanson in the movie) clocks Merrick, a stoic Donald Sutherland, square in the jaw after he reveals she is the chosen one to vanquish the vampires of southern California. She’s astounded she hasn’t even broken a nail with the punch. For those familiar with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s incarnation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer through seven seasons on television, this exchange takes ages.

While the pilot episode of Buffy introduces the slayer to her watcher Giles in the first 10 minutes, a half hour of movie time goes by before Swanson as Buffy discovers her true identity as the vampire slayer.  

Whedon has said he envisioned Buffy as the antithesis of most blondes in horror films who only have to look pretty before getting slashed. The movie is clearly a rough draft of the concepts Whedon fleshed out more successfully in the television series. But for an hour-and-a-half on Halloween weekend, Buffy is a worthy companion. Note the way she can turn a tumble into a headstand into a string of backflips.   

Once Buffy embraces her role as the slayer, the movie becomes watchable beyond Whedon’s fascination with teen slang. Whedon wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a studied ear for Valley Girl and teen-speak generally. When Merrick cautions Buffy against leading vampires down a dark alley to kill them, she responds, “Does the word ‘duh’ mean anything to you?”

Friends of Buffy’s, like Kimberly (a gum-chomping Hilary Swank), get dumber versions of Valley Girl. Kimberly sees a yellow jacket at the mall and calls it “so five minutes ago.” Clearly, Whedon finds Buffy smarter than that, although she operates in the same world. When Luke Perry – pause for 90210 era swooning – introduces himself as Pike, Buffy responds, “Pike’s not a name, it’s a fish.”

Pike and Buffy have palpable chemistry from the start. She saves him from a fleet of vampires in a field, moving their relationship from teasing to tempting. Buffy fights her supposed nemesis’ vampire cronies, including Paul Reubens of Pee-Wee Herman fame.

The movie never explains why Lothos (Rutger Hauer) acts as the big evil or why he has followed the slayer through every age. But it really doesn’t matter. His presence merely needs to facilitate a dramatic fight to the death at the senior dance.

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the men incidentally exist, defined by their relationships to Buffy. “Did I do all that?” Pike asks, coming to in the destroyed school gym after a vampire’s knocked him out. Buffy shakes her head no. “Did you do all that?” Pike asks. Buffy shakes her head yes.     


Women rule in the 1993 Disney movie Hocus Pocus. The Sanderson Sisters – Winifred, Sarah and Mary – are witches in Salem in the 1600s. They open the movie by luring a young girl, Emily (Jodie Rivera), to their cottage.

The witches need to suck the life force from children to maintain their youth and beauty forever. While the Sanderson Sisters obsess over their constant need for children in general, the ones they actually drain are little girls, reaffirming girls as perpetuators of life.

Emily’s brother, Thackery Binx (Sean Murray), runs to the witches’ cottage to try and save his hypnotized little sister from the witches. Despite his good intentions, Binx gets zapped by Winifred Sanderson (Bette Midler) and turned into a black cat, cursed to live forever after watching his sister die. Boys are nothing more than play things for Sarah Sanderson (a joyously ditzy Sarah Jessica Parker).

When the townsfolk hang the witches for the “disappearance” of the Binx children, Winifred sings a spell – as she will do repeatedly in the movie, it is Bette Midler after all – that will bring the sisters back on the full moon of the All Hallows Eve Night when a virgin lights the black flame candle.

For a Disney movie, they apply the virgin blame liberally. In present day, Max Dennison (Omri Katz) has just moved to Salem from Los Angeles. He calls the legend of the Sanderson Sisters “a bunch of hocus pocus,” in one of his many underestimations of women. After lighting the black flame candle on Halloween night, his little sister Dani (Thora Birch) tells anyone who’ll listen that her brother’s the dumb virgin who lit the candle.

Max’s may be a virgin, but he’s not afraid to flirt. On his first day of school in Salem, he gives his phone number to the pretty girl in class who shuts down his cynical opinion of Halloween. Allison (Vinessa Shaw) even likes Max enough to leave her parent’s Halloween party and accompany him and Dani to the Sanderson Sisters’ cottage.

Max’s machismo in lighting the black flame candle is easily explained by the humiliation he faces while taking Dani trick-or-treating. Some high school bullies, who had previously stolen Max’s shoes, spend their Halloween night taking candy from children. Dani says her brother will show them not to mess with her, but he gives up his own bag of candy instead of fighting. “At least you would’ve died like a man,” Dani says when Max protests that the bullies would’ve killed him. Reeling from emasculation, he had to reassert his power by lighting the black flame candle in defiance of the curse.

The Sanderson Sisters return to Earth with a vengeance. The black flame candle will keep them alive for one night only while they search for children to drain the life from. Dani becomes the chosen one, leading the charge in sending the sisters back to their graves. She befriends Binx in cat form, recognizing him as a useful ally, and keeps the adventure moving from scene to scene.   

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