‘Hocus Pocus’ is my favourite film of all time. I know, don’t judge me.
If you aren’t familiar with the film (where have you been for the last thirty years? Stuck in hell with the Sanderson sisters?), it is a fantasy comedy film from Walt Disney Pictures about three villainous sibling witches – Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) Sanderson – who are accidently resurrected by Max (Omri Katz), his little sister Dani (Thora Birch), and Max’s crush Alison (Vinessa Shaw) in Salem on Halloween night in 1993. With the help of Thackery Binx (Sean Murray), a young man from 1693 who was cursed by Winnie to live immortally in the body of a black cat, and Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones), Winnie’s ex-lover who she resurrects as a zombie, the trio work together to stop the Sanderson sisters from achieving their goal to “suck the lives out of the children of Salem before sunrise” so they can grow young, live forever, and terrorize the town.
Classic 90s-style, Disney-esque spooky high jinks ensue. It’s a lot of fun. I’d never given much thought as to why ‘Hocus Pocus’ is my favourite film but with the upcoming sequel that I’ve been waiting literally my whole life for being released today, I thought it would be fun to explore not only why I personally love it, but how and why it has become a staple of Halloween viewing. It has cult status among spooky season lovers, but why? Let’s find out.
“Why was I cursed with such idiot sisters?”: Production & Filming
‘Hocus Pocus’ originated from an idea producer David Kirschner had in the early 80s. He was sitting outside with his youngest daughter when a stray black cat strolled by. Kirschner came up with a story about the cat, telling his daughter that the cat was once a young boy who was transformed into a cat by three villainous witches after he angered them. Halloween was always a big deal for the Kirschner household; “It has been since our daughters were little,” Kirschner said, “It speaks to me in a way that becomes too emotional for me and always has”.
The idea quickly became a screenplay, written by Mick Garris, a horror lover with a wealth of film and television experience including ‘Psycho IV’, ‘Tales from the Crypt’, ‘The Fly II’, and numerous Stephen King adaptations, and Neil Cuthbert, a screenwriter and playwright responsible for ‘Mystery Men’ and ‘The Return of the Swamp Thing’. Safe to say, the script was in good hands.
The film was initially called ‘Disney’s Halloween House’, had much younger protagonists (all around twelve years old) and was supposedly a lot more scary than comedic. Garris explained that the protagonists were originally so young because “Halloween has a much deeper resonance to a 12-year-old than to a 16-year-old who was just going out and stealing all the 12-year-olds’ candy from them”.
After being rejected by Steven Spielberg who didn’t want to produce a film for his supposed rival Disney, the script went through several rewrites. Only one protagonist remained twelve years old, Dani Dennison, and the scarier elements were transformed into more humorous, lighthearted scenarios. Now approaching the script with more comedy in mind, the role of Winifred Sanderson was written for Cloris Leachman. Leachman worked with comedy legend Mel Brooks and is perhaps best known for her role as Frau Blücher in ‘Young Frankenstein’, starring alongside Gene Wilder. Her famous role as the child-eating witch in 1987’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ also no doubt informed Winnie’s characterization on the page. It is unclear if Leachman was ever actually approached about the part, but as soon as Bette Midler expressed interest, well…the rest is history.
‘Hocus Pocus’ was mostly filmed in Salem over five months, from October 1992 to February 1993.
Costumes in ‘Hocus Pocus’ are part of what makes it so fun and adds to its enduring appeal. Max’s tie-dye shirt immediately signals him as a ‘Hollywood’ outsider (the colours also mirror Winnie, Mary, and Sarah’s) and Dani’s adorable witch costume is the only outfit we ever see her in, showing that she is more comfortable and can be more herself during spooky season. A small detail I love is the stitching on Billy’s mouth – they’re sewn in the pattern of XIII, the Roman numerals for 13. A nice touch! And to make his performance even better, the moths that fly from his mouth when he cuts the stitching are real. Say what you like about Doug Jones – the man commits!
For the Sanderson sisters, costume designer Mary Vogt wanted a very specific look for each witch. For Bette, she wanted something “colorful and fun" with "a little sparkle to it", and she gave Winnie green and purple robes to compliment the character’s fiery red hair. She also added runic alphabet symbols to Winnie's dress. Bette’s performance as Winnie was heavily inspired by Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West in 1939’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (if you listen carefully in her final scene, the music alludes to the Wicked Witch’s theme) and Anjelica Houston’s creepy yet elegant Grand High Witch from 1991’s ‘The Witches’. Bette also got creative with her insults. She wanted true-to-the-time period language, so she had two people follow her around with dictionaries full of old curse words and phrase, including “maggoty malfeasance” and “trollimog”.
Sarah’s costume is probably the most beautiful in the entire film. Vogt saw Sarah as “the little beauty queen” and wanted more of a “witch princess” vibe for her. This fits perfectly with her character, especially during her ‘come little children’ lullaby sequences. Mary’s costume, Vogt envisioned “was more like an alchemist... her outfit was meant to look like a witch baker”. Kathy Najimy, who plays Mary, was initially reluctant to be in the film as she didn’t want to offend real witches, but she made the character her own, even incorporating an odd barking tic, which she claimed came from the idea of Mary as part Hellhound.
The Sanderson sisters have to get creative after their brooms are stolen, and according to Peggy Holmes, the film’s chorographer, the Sanderson sisters flew their brooms ‘in character’. “Winifred is in charge and much more aggressive than the other two. She's always leading the way and looking for children”, Holmes explained, "Sarah loves to fly. She's always lifting up with her mop and can't wait to get up in the air, whereas Mary is more cautious. Like a good driver, she signals with her hand. Mary is the safe and steady flier”.
So ‘Hocus Pocus’ had a stellar cast, a Disney backing, experienced screenwriters, and a fantastic production team. So, it was a hit…right?
"You know, I've always wanted a child. Now I think I'll have one... on toast!": Initial Reception
‘Hocus Pocus’ was released in July 1993, the rationale being that kids would be on summer holidays, and it’s speculated that they wanted to avoid competition with another spooky Disney holiday movie being released that year – ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’. Although it grossed over $8 million on its opening weekend, it quickly fell from the Top Ten list just two weeks after its release. ‘Hocus Pocus’ lost Disney around $16 million during its theatrical run.
Critics were not kind either. Roger Ebert called it a “confusing cauldron in which there is great activity but little progress, and a lot of hysterical shrieking”, the Miami Herald a “pretty lackluster affair”, and Entertainment Weekly “depressing as hell”. Entertainment Weekly called out Bette Midler specifically, claiming that “the sight of the Divine Miss M. mugging her way through a cheesy supernatural kiddie comedy is, to say the least, dispiriting”. Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune degraded it as “dreadful” and Janet Maslin of The New York Times accused it of having “virtually no grip on its story”.
‘Hocus Pocus’ was metaphorically swept under the Disney rug of mediocre 90s live action films. So, if it was supposedly so bad back when it was first released, how did it become so beloved now, so much as to warrant a highly demanded sequel?
Enter: cult fandom.
“It’s a full moon outside, the weirdos are out!”: Hocus Pocus’ Cult Following
Generally speaking, cult films are films with a passionately committed fan base. David Church, in an article for Cineaste, defines a cult film as one with a “select but eccentrically devoted audience who engage in repeated screenings, celebratory rituals, and/or iconic reading strategies”. But surely you can make that argument about any film? Cult films can be popular at the time of their release (‘Casablanca’ or ‘Back to the Future’) or flops but are now loved (‘Blade Runner’), universally acknowledged as ‘good’ (‘Pulp Fiction’) or ‘bad’ (‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’).
Cult films are notoriously difficult to define. Film scholars attribute various, often contradictory, characteristics to them. Here are just some of them:
Highly camp and/or theatrical: e.g., literally any John Waters film
Transgressive in cinematic style and/or story: e.g., ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ or ‘Showgirls’
Quirky and/or outrageous plots: ‘The Princess Bride’, ‘Back to the Future’ (time travel) or ‘Heathers’ (humorous approach to culture taboos of murder and suicide)
Performed badly on initial release and/or panned by critics but has since been rediscovered and reappreciated: ‘Practical Magic’, ‘The Thing’, or ‘Blade Runner’
Nostalgia: ‘Back to the Future’ or ‘Grease’
Rediscovered years later: ‘Nosferatu’ or ‘Night of the Hunter’
Iconic quotable dialogue: “Royale with Cheese” from ‘Pulp Fiction’, “Here’s looking at you, kid” from ‘Casablanca’, or “She doesn’t even go here” from ‘Mean Girls’
Bad quotable dialogue: “Anyway, how's your sex life?” from ‘The Room’
Outside the mainstream: ‘Easy Rider’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’
Inside the mainstream: ‘The Sound of Music’ or any of the original ‘Star Wars’ films
‘So bad it’s good’: ‘Flash Gordon’, ‘Killer Klowns from Outer Space’, or ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’, or even numerous Hammer Horror productions from the 60s and 70s
Queerness: any John Waters film, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘The Haunting’ or ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’
Only appealing to a specific subculture/demographic: ‘Clueless’ (teenage girls), ‘Reefer Madness’ (weed enthusiasts), or ‘Shaft’ (African Americans)
Ritualistic practices like costumes, seasonal viewings, or audience participation: ‘Hocus Pocus’, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, ‘Halloween III’, or ‘The House on Haunted Hill’
The horror genre seems a natural fit for cult films because it’s perceived as being outside the norm and can therefore incorporate many of the characteristics associated with the above. ‘Hocus Pocus’, especially, earns its cult status from its relation to the above characteristics.
‘Hocus Pocus’ works because it performed poorly on its initial release but received new love and appreciation via VHS and cable television reruns, it’s nostalgic (it’s like a 90s aesthetic time capsule), it’s camp and queer (Halloween has always been a season where queer folks have felt able to safely express themselves) and has a queer icon at its centre (Queen Bette), has quotable dialogue (“Oh look, another glorious morning. Makes me sick!”), appeals to a specific subculture (90s whimsi-goth, millennial women and queer men), and has become part of many people’s yearly Halloween viewing.
No film is intended to be a cult film, it’s the fans’ dedication to it that grants it that status. People’s love and adoration for 'Hocus Pocus', despite it not being considered a ‘good’ film (which in itself is a very subjective and fluid thing), has ensured that it remains in the public eye every year when spooky season rolls around. And even more so this year with our eagerly awaited sequel. The Sanderson sisters are back and The Fright Club NI are here for it! We can’t wait.
‘Hocus Pocus 2’ is available on Disney+ from 30th September 2022.
- Victoria Brown