In 1993, Disney released the family Halloween staple Hocus Pocus to moderate box office and lackluster critical response. In the preceding thirteen years, the Mouse House had created a new niche for itself with a healthy slate of scary movies for kids: The Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Return to Oz and The Nightmare Before Christmas were all released to varying degrees of success, and for horror-hungry kids whose parents forbade harder fare, Disney offered a satisfying appetizer, much like R.L. Stine did for nascent Stephen King fans.
Hocus Pocus has a more jovial atmosphere than the creeping dread found in Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked, but it’s unmistakably a film for young horror lovers. Underneath the brightly colored Halloween festivities of Salem and Kenny Ortega’s wholesome and euphoric direction, Hocus Pocus boasts some qualities not at all unlikely to be found in a typical R-rated fright flick: it opens with the murder of a child and a scheme for the death of many more; witchcraft and Satanism are given their gleeful due; genre mainstay Doug Jones plays an oft-headless zombie relentlessly stalking the innocent children who make up our trio of heroes.
The film’s occasional grisliness alongside its cheerful, family-friendly atmosphere resulted in negative reviews from many confused critics, as so often happens when horror is paired with an incongruous tone. Horror comedies are rarely praised for bucking tradition, and Hocus Pocus was no exception. In Janet Maslin’s scathing New York Times review, she wrote, “It changes tone as casually as the actors don their masquerade costumes, and has no scruples about breaking its own mood altogether (as when the three witches suddenly perform ‘I Put a Spell on You’ at a Halloween party).” But over the years, Hocus Pocus has taken flight as a cult favorite; it’s rebroadcast annually as part of ABC Family’s 13 Nights of Halloween, repeatedly the highest rated film of the lineup. And it’s a film that many people my age -- women in particular, though plenty of men, too -- refer to fondly and frequently, and consider a Halloween viewing essential together with Hellraiser and Halloween.
So what is it about Hocus Pocus that sticks with us, 21 years later? Zombies and witches aside, this is absolutely a movie for kids, and one that lacks the literature cred that’s made classics out of Harry Potter, Willy Wonka and many of Disney’s best loved films. It would be easy, at first flush, to dismiss the film as goofy and slight, to write off its continued favor with fans as nothing more than the nostalgia machine at work.
But the fact remains that Hocus Pocus has a quality, one that transcends its childish jokes and over-the-top performances. Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker feast on the scenery as our three witches, the Sanderson sisters, and many viewers were dismayed in particular by the great Midler’s buck-toothed, manic transformation into Winifred. But Midler, a born performer, is having a ball with the role, making a delicious meal of it, and if you can look past the false teeth and shrieking cackle, you might have some fun with her, too. Najimy’s side-slanting mouth and eager-to-please nature and Parker’s daffy seduction make for a wacky trio, one that’s meant to tickle kids while setting them slightly on edge -- and the Sanderson sisters are successful at just that. These are three incredibly accomplished actresses having a blast and letting their hair down (or up, as Najimy’s case may be), and the least we can do is enjoy it.
And while Omri Katz and Vinessa Shaw are mostly inoffensive as Max and Allison, two of the three kids who set out to stop the Sanderson sisters on the night of their return (an All Hallows Eve 300 years after they were burned at the stake), Thora Birch makes it clear that she rightly earned her place as the breakout child star of the ‘90s. She’s charming and adorable and wryly funny, able to take Dani’s precocious lines and make them stick.
But much like Mike Dougherty’s 2007 film Trick ‘R Treat, another title that initially faltered only to find its audience every October since, it’s the unadulterated delight Hocus Pocus takes in the season of Halloween that earns the film its cult classic mantle. Despite the wide number of horror films taking place on October 31st, there’s a dearth of genuine Halloween spirit to be found in most of them. Not even Halloween feels like Halloween for much of its running time. But Hocus Pocus -- now that’s a movie about Halloween.
Salem is drenched in fall leaves and leering jack-o-lanterns, and run wild with kids in costumes. Good costumes! Not the usual background cast garbed in flimsy Wal-Mart specials. Nancy Patton -- the art director of Hocus Pocus who’s also responsible for such great, memorable-looking films as Newsies, Cat People and Scrooged -- creates a Samhain wonderland, all windswept trees, dripping candles, buckets of candy and giant, tumbling piles of gourds. And the score! John Debney (Elf, Sin City) composed one of the great soundtracks to my own festivities each Halloween. Crisp and rousing, mischievous and unerringly autumnal, the Hocus Pocus score feels like caramel apples dipped in candy corn.
Likewise, the witchcraft of the Sanderson sisters offers a rich, spooky mythology that has its own sparkling sense of mischief. Winifred, Sarah and Mary are summoned when a virgin (namely poor Max, and a lot of mileage is made out of his humiliation at being singled out as a virgin in front of the girl of his dreams) lights the black flame candle, made from the fat of a hangman. That’s just cool, and it’s one of many deliciously witchy touches as the Sanderson sisters boil, toil and trouble their way through their last chance at earning eternal life -- at the cost of all of Salem’s young souls.
It’s this gleeful sense of disobedience and unabashed love of the spookiest holiday that set Hocus Pocus apart from its contemporaries. This is a film that loves Halloween, that loves horror. Ortega takes that frightful night, and the terrors of witches and zombies and Satan himself, and makes it all digestible for young viewers desperate for scares. It’s a formula later adopted by ParaNorman, another film that understands you don’t have to be a grown-up to get horror, and a movie doesn’t have to be rated R (or in the case of both Hocus Pocus and ParaNorman, even PG-13) to capture what much older fans love about their favorite scary movies. Hocus Pocus may have started out as a slick commercial endeavor, but it’s one that got the formula right -- and one that, over two decades later, is still winning fans and causing (double, double toil and) trouble.
This was originally published in the October issue of Birth.Movies.Death.