Film: "Hocus Pocus"

Stars: Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker

Theaters: Annex, Woodland Hills and Cinema 8 (Broken Arrow,

Sand Springs)

Rating: PG (language, sexual innuendo)

Quality: TWO STARS (on a scale of zero to four stars)

Imagine if the Three Stooges got up in pasty makeup and

used prom dresses, and you have a picture of the trio of

broom-riding crones at the center of Disney's mumbo-jumbo

witch's brew, "Hocus Pocus."

The Sanderson sisters are three wicked Salem, Mass., harpies

(Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy) who

as the story opens are summarily hanged in their home town,

circa 1693, for sucking the life out of a young girl.

But just before they're lynched, the three batty sisters

vow to return when a virgin lights an enchanted candle on

a future All Hallow's Eve.

Leap ahead 300 years, and three local kids - Max (Omri Katz),

his buxom high school girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw) and his

smart-aleck sister (Thora Birch) - sneak into the Sanderson

mansion, now a musty old museum, and Max (a VIRGIN!) lights

the magic candle.

Quicker than you can say "Harlette," Midler and her two

sidekicks are brought back to life. They can stay alive

on one condition - they must feed on the three children

before sunrise in order to rejuvenate their wicked old souls.

From here, the screenplay by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert

conjures up a dreary and predictable narrative in which

the bumbling witches spend the night chasing through cemeteries

after the cute and resourceful prey.

This is one of the oddest releases of the summer, and it's

hard to imagine it finding a broad audience. With the rather

ghoulish deaths of children depicted, it's certainly too

strong for very young moviegoers. The sights of kiddy corpses

here are enough to scare the bejabbers out of most pre-schoolers.

You'd think with Midler at the center of things, there'd

be enough campy, trashy humor to keep adults amused. But

despite some rather clumsy breast jokes and out-of-place

sexual innuendo, Midler is fairly tame. As the narcissistic

old Winifred, she projects a certain rodent quality that's

more unsavory than funny.

Parker is a very un-Disneylike vixen who strokes her broomstick

suggestively, and Najimy (who shone in last summer's hit

"Sister Act") plays a lumpen dimwit. The two are given

very little to do in the shadow of Midler's frantic theatrics.

Director Kenny Ortega ("Newsies") gives the whole thing

the cadence of a song-and-dance show, although the talented

Midler is given only one musical number - a rather strained

version of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."

The director also makes use of a caldron of musty old Disney

gimmicks - a talking black cat, a friendly zombie who keeps

losing his head - but they seem hollow and perfunctory.

"Hocus Pocus" will need a potent spell to save it from

quick exile to the video shelves. Perhaps it deserves that

fate for the troublesome message it delivers about being

a teen-ager and still a virgin. That's poor Max's shame.

It's also this movie's shame. Call it "Hokum Pocus."