The spell you’re happy to be under: ‘Hocus Pocus’
It was 1993. Bill Clinton had just been sworn in as president of the United States, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was charting and a little film called “Hocus Pocus” would soon make an unassuming arrival in theaters. The film followed the Sanderson Sisters, a trio of witches in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts, who were hanged for witchcraft (and possibly bad jokes).
But alas, the sisters Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) cast a spell in their final moments that would allow them to come back, though only if a virgin felt so inclined as to light a “black flame candle.” Their return comes on Halloween night in 1993, when a non-believer in magic and tomfoolery Max Dennison (Omri Katz) lights the candle in effort to impress his crush.
What follows is a rather enjoyable 96-minute feature with a charming narrative and some PG humor (the term “virgin” is said a total of nine times). The film was ultimately met with poor reviews when it was released in July of that year and grossed $39.5 million at the box office on a $28 million budget.
That might’ve been the end of it, if not for cult film status. In the 25 years since its release, “Hocus Pocus” continues to gain a staggering number of followers, and Disney recently aired a commemorative special on Freeform. But what is it about this film that keeps people coming back?
A large part of the film’s enduring popularity is the fact that it is a relatively wholesome affair. Sure, there’s a “Shrek”-esque joke every now and again, but the movie can be viewed by anyone without causing an adverse reaction. “Hocus Pocus” is to Halloween as “Elf” is to Christmas: a fun, albeit predictable, narrative with enough jokes to keep adults entertained.
But unlike Christmas, whose themes are inherently heartwarming and spiritual, Halloween is something of a rogue holiday, focused on all things concerning death. So, for a film to come about that subverts this whole batch of melancholy and makes things fun is no small feat. The whole family can’t watch “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but a campy movie on witches is another matter entirely.
Every October, talk of a sequel gets batted around in Disney boardrooms and Midler makes the talk show rounds saying she’d love to star again. But do we really need another? “Hocus Pocus” bears much of its reverence due to the nostalgic tones of its setting. The clothing, the cultural references (“I’m Madonna!”) and the plucky resilience of the protagonists made for a fun, singular story that would be hard to duplicate.
Just take the Halloween party in the town hall for instance: it actually seems like a party. People are dancing and chatting away, and no one can be seen sitting in corners staring at the ruddy glow of their iPhones.
A modern sequel would no doubt have a phone filming the Sanderson Sisters’ antics, which is decidedly less magical.
The film “Hocus Pocus” is best described by the Sanderson Sisters’ performance of “I Put A Spell On You” (a bop if ever there ever was one). The lyrics are written by the same musician who wrote “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic” (come again?) but has a bubbly energy that, while silly, is just decidedly fun. And that’s the movie, really.
It’s the type of flick Disney doesn’t make anymore: an original story with its own world and set of characters. It’s just the right amount of spooky and humor and is likely to be a classic going well into the future.