The following contains spoilers from the movie "Hocus Pocus 2," now streaming on Disney+.
Halfway through "Hocus Pocus 2," Bette Midler shouts off a set of direct commands. "Clear the altar, all of you! Clear my stage!" she says, sending everyone around her scurrying.
"And you — try to keep up."
That last instruction is directed at a petrified four-person rock band, but the same could be said of the sequel itself. Debuting Friday on Disney+, the movie attempts to echo a rare feat pulled off by its 1993 predecessor: staging a musical number with villainous charisma, narrative action and a sprinkle of spookiness — a formula that reinvented a well-known song as an iconic Halloween movie moment for the film's legion of fans.
The original "Hocus Pocus" sees Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as sibling witches desperate to extract children's souls in order to maintain their own youth. The movie's director, Kenny Ortega, who was fresh off helming "Newsies," had previously worked with Midler as an assistant choreographer on the 1979 film "The Rose" and pitched everyone on squeezing a song into "Hocus Pocus." The idea was initially met with some resistance — "This is a movie that puts you on the edge of your seat, and you’re going to stop it for this musical number?" said producer David Kirschner at the time, according to Bustle — but Ortega won out.
"Bette is such a brilliant artist and a courageous spirit, and she isn't afraid to break the rules when she performs," Ortega tells The Times. "At the time, I just couldn't imagine getting all the way through this movie without taking advantage of her musical talent."
The trio covered Screamin' Jay Hawkins' 1956 song "I Put a Spell on You" — already a haunting track in itself, due to its booming blues rhythm, overtly lustful lyrics and the R&B singer's signature shrieks. Composer Marc Shaiman, who regularly collaborated with Midler on her musical performances onscreen and onstage, rearranged the track into a family-friendly showstopper that highlighted her soaring vocals and animated acting choices.
"That first verse had to be slower, witchy and mystical," explains Shaiman. After Midler greeted an onscreen crowd — a reference to the famed musical "Gypsy," in which she had just starred — "the tempo kicks in, and then it's a full-on Bette Midler performance, with a Tina Turner or Janis Joplin kind of energy and a theatrical orchestration."
Since Hawkins' song is notably brief when sped up, "we thought, what can we do to make this pertain to these characters and this actual moment in the movie?" Shaiman recalls. "Bette and I, as we are wont to do, immediately started writing new lyrics. I remember we were very excited about coming up with, 'Your wretched little lives have all been cursed/ 'cause of all the witches working, I'm the worst,' because we love real rhymes."
Shaiman also added a mysterious call-and-response chant and vocal parts mimicking Midler's real-life backup singers the Harlettes, which Parker and Najimy learned quickly. "Everything was like a kind of alchemy," he says. "It just worked."
The production only allowed for one day to shoot the elaborate sequence, which included the Sanderson Sisters' bewitching performance for a costumed crowd at a holiday party and a simultaneous chase scene between three kids, a cat and a zombie. "We had to work quickly, and since Bette is a consummate live performer, you don't need to do more than a few takes with her and Kathy and Sarah, and you've got it in the bag," says Ortega.
"There was a great spirit on the set, and I remember a lot of laughs and a lot of fun," he continues. "The crowd and the crew hadn't seen what we were doing until we were rehearsing it right there on the spot, and everybody was just loving what it was. And that began with Bette: She had a great sense of humor about the work and her character that she would often crack herself up. She just couldn't believe some of the places that Winifred Sanderson enabled her to go, and I just had to tell her, 'Keep going!'"
Though critics panned the movie and the audio still has yet to be released, the sequence has developed a cultlike popularity over the last three decades as the film has become a Halloween-season staple. The song itself is a regular at drag shows, Disney Parks live events and Midler's own concerts. Naturally, "Hocus Pocus 2" — in which the Sanderson Sisters are resurrected and hunting down the mayor of Salem, Mass. — had to include its own rollicking cover.
"It's one of the things the fans universally love about the first movie, so we knew it was something they'd be anticipating," says the sequel's director, Anne Fletcher, who worked with her longtime music supervisor, Buck Damon, to find the right tune. "He and I went to town on any song under the sun that had the word witch, moon, cat, evil, you name it. I didn't try to compete with 'I Put a Spell on You' because it's perfect, you can't compete. I just wanted to find something that absolutely suits the story and is completely fun."
After debating Queen tracks and the Eurythmics-Aretha Franklin collaboration "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," Blondie's 1979 release "One Way or Another" — a melodic rock hit rooted in Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry's encounter with a stalker — "stood out like a sore thumb," says Fletcher, "since the Sanderson Sisters are looking for someone in particular."
The lyrics were again tweaked by Shaiman and Midler to fit the plot with more vivid verbs. Because of the song's construction, "they all had to have three or four rhymes, like, 'We're gonna grab ya/ I'll nab ya/ I'll jab ya," says Shaiman. "There's a part that's not in the movie where Bette and I totally went insane: 'We're gonna slay ya/ then probably fillet ya/ it might upset ya/ but we'll getcha.' We worked really hard on it, and even when I think it's good, there will always be that phone call at night from Bette saying, 'We gotta fix this part.' She's endlessly striving for perfection."
Once again, the "Hocus Pocus 2" musical number — set during a Sanderson Sisters-themed costume contest, a meta nod to the lasting popularity of these characters — was captured within a day. While performing the cover, Midler, Parker and Najimy reprise their onstage theatrics — swishing skirts, widened eyes, flashy gestures — and, thanks to the call-and-response chant from the first film, entrance a crowd of Halloween festivalgoers into a coordinated flash mob. "It was freezing in Newport [R.I.,] that night, but the witches were so dialed in and just kept going," says Fletcher of the shoot. "Once they were done, I stood onstage with a microphone and talked the audience through the moves: 'Jump! Stare! Walk to the right! Walk to the left!'"
Time will tell if the sequel's cover of "One Way or Another" — as well as a witchy cover of Elton John's 1974 hit "The B— Is Back," also rewritten by Shaiman and Midler and co-produced by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder — becomes Halloween canon like "I Put a Spell on You." And whether or not the long-rumored stage adaptation ever materializes, there's already a musical idea for a potential third installment, especially given how the second movie ends.
"There was hope that there would be a third song [in this movie], and Bette had said, 'They're talking about how we'd be in hell,'" says Shaiman, who then suggested "Hot Hot Hot," Arrow's calypso track as covered by Buster Poindexter in 1987. "It'd be so much fun, but it didn't happen. So that could be the third 'Hocus Pocus.'
"Will it take another 30 years?" he asks with a laugh. "We'll actually be corpses then, and we'll all have to be resurrected from the grave."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.