When discussing Halloween movies, one of the first go-tos is “Hocus Pocus.” The 1993 Disney film is something of an oddity, and not just regarding its wacky plot. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes reveals a drastic difference in critic and audience reception. Usually there are disparities, but not to the degree of this cult classic. Memorable characters, an inventive yet familiar story, and goodies for all ages make this a mandatory inclusion each October.
Hocus Pocus opens in 1693 Salem, Massachusetts, commonly known for its famous witch trials. Teenage Thackery Binx (Sean Murray) wakes up to discover his young sister Emily (Jodie Rivera) skipping off into the forest, towards an ominous cottage with a plume of purple smoke billowing from the chimney. She’s been lured off by one of the three Sanderson Sisters, Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker). The Sanderson Sisters, consisting of Sarah, Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Winnie (Bette Midler), are notorious witches who require children for their life force. They drink Emily’s life force, turn Thackery into an immortal black cat, and are hanged by a mob of angry villagers.
Jump ahead to 1993, and we meet Max Dennison (Omri Katz), a California kid recently transplanted to Salem. It’s Halloween, Max is having a bit of trouble adjusting to his new home: he rejects the common obsession with the Sanderson Sisters, his crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) doesn’t seem to respond to his wooing, and to top it off he has to take his baby sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick or treating. Max, while reluctantly chaperoning his sister, runs into Allison. The three break into the former home of the Sanderson Sisters, now a defunct museum. Max accidentally resurrects the witches, who embark on a mission to obtain life forces so as to ensure their immortality, thus prompting Max, Dani, and Allison to thwart the witches’ efforts.
With an admittedly simple and mildly predictable plot, what makes “Hocus Pocus” so magical? Like the witches’ recipe for stealing life forces from kids, there’ not just one ingredient, but rather an amalgamation of elements. The acting stands out, and it’s most evident with the witches. Each witch has a distinct personality and skill set. Winnie is the leader and brains of the bunch. Mary balances out the fiery eldest sister, Winnie. She can smell children, useful for detecting when a pack is ripe for the picking. Sarah rounds out the group as the resident dimwit, and her assets include an enchanting voice. How perfect to kidnap kids with. Similarly, the kids are unique in their characterizations. Max is the new kid in town, who is a stereotype of California: he rocks a tye dye shirt, listens to Jimi Hendrix, and doesn’t believe in witch lore. Dani is the annoying younger sibling, though she and Max really love each other. Allison is the resident local girl with an obsession over witches.
Labeling this 1993 flick is difficult considering the breadth of material. The target audience clearly being kids, it’s unavoidable branding it a “children’s film,” but the movie is surprisingly dark, particularly for a Disney production. A kid is killed in the opening few minutes, and though it isn’t gruesome, it’s a ballsy move. Most slasher films won’t even wack children, and usually Disney sticks to knocking off parents. Luckily, this scene is pretty subtle, so younger viewers should be fine. A cat is flattened by a bus at one point, though it’s an immortal cat (naturally) so it ends up being fine. There are a few sexual references as well, including a hilarious scene where a Salem bus driver picks up the 300 year old Sanderson Sisters. They explain they want kids and in a laugh out loud misinterpretation, he says it may take a few tries but he can manage.
It’s precisely this complexity that makes for such replay value, and appeals to a broad age range. Young kids will appreciate the goofy antics, while older viewers gravitate toward the clever wordplay and sentimental themes. There’s a parallel between Thackery and Max: both teenagers have younger sisters who are taken by the witches, and the finale is surprisingly sweet. “Hocus Pocus” serves up a hearty dose of hilarity while managing to set up genuinely meaningful moments. There are some neat camera angles borrowed from traditional slasher flicks, such as a shot of Dani peering out from the closet doors. Seeing this applied in a kid-friendly film turns the mundane into something extraordinary. One of the clear highlights of the film is a Sanderson Sisters rendition of “I Put a Spell on You.” The 1993 horror-comedy has a bit of everything, and manages to do every task well. A wickedly spellbinding flick, “Hocus Pocus” rightly deserves the cult status is has achieved.