Hocus Pocus [Guilty Pleasure Film]
As Halloween draws near our spooky traditions begin, covering the house in cobwebs, carving pumpkins, designing a terrifying costume, and of course binge watching your ‘trick or treat’ favourites. We all have our favourite spooky films for this time of year, some extreme horrors, some a little less scary but packed with nostalgia and fond memories.
That’s where this guilty pleasure watch comes in. Hocus Pocus has become a cult classic, a must-watch for 90’s kids and a beloved annual ritual. This may seem like a strange pick for guilty pleasure considering how well loved it is in pop culture today, but it was not well received on its release. Somehow it landed a 37% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes with words like ‘hokey’, ‘muddled’ and ‘mediocre’ being thrown around like pumpkin guts. Luckily that’s not an agreed consensus from it’s legion of fans who see it as a classic halloween treat.
After being hanged for witchcraft in Salem 300 years ago, the Sanderson Sisters are resurrected when a young virgin, Max, lights the cursed black candle. The witches have until sunrise on Halloween to achieve immortality through taking the life source of children. Now Max, his crush Allison, and his little sister Dani must outwit the witchy sisters in order to save the children of Salem and themselves. Oh…and they’re also helped by Binx, the talking cat.
It’s a crazy storyline that has just enough of the usual Disney vibe, new kid at school with a crush to impress, typical over the top bullies who say things like ‘tubular’ and a talking animal that gives moral advice. But, it’s in the adult nature of the film that it’s fun rewatchability stands. Things that fly over a kids head (mine included) suddenly stand out, like the bus driver offering to give the witches the children they desire, the obsession with virginity and the Sanderson Sisters’ weird ‘interaction’ with their master ‘Satan’. I had zero idea what was being implied in these scenes, but now I understand why my mum was laughing.
One of the issues people tend to point out with Hocus Pocus is the lead character being a bit of an annoying wet blanket. It’s not a false observation, Max (Omri Katz) is a bit strange, somewhere between over confident and a complete idiot, but he does develop through the story at least, learning to appreciate and protect his sister. Also, nobody is watching this film for the male lead, it is the women of this film that we’re interested in. Dani (Thora Birch), the spunky young halloween lover who has embraced her new hometown of Salem and is braver and more emotionally mature than her older brother in every way. Then there’s Allison (Vinessa Shaw), the ‘white witch’ who could have easily been relegated to the romantic interest sidelines but once again proves herself to be smarter and more capable than our lead. The women are the real draw here, even the teacher in the opening scene who I have all the time in the world for, she has the Halloween spirit and it’s infectious.
Of course, the main delight of this Halloween banquet is The Sanderson Sisters. The three witches are hamming it up with pure camp glory. We have the powerful hag Winifred (Bette Midler), the sultry seductress Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the comical lunatic Mary (Kathy Najimy). They are the perfect trio, clad separately in red, purple and green, each with their own unique skill, be it dark magic, sniffing out children or a luring voice. The three are clearly having one hell of a time, holding nothing back, throwing themselves into the roles and running amok (amok, amok, amok!). These women make me happier with every viewing, the epitome of the stereotypical images that people have of witches, the horrendous hag who will steal children from their bed or the stunning temptress that will lure people in with her looks before sacrificing them to her dark lord. Yet, they are smarter than given credit for and women who refuse to live by society’s rules, I can get behind that.
“I’m crossing my ‘dead man’s toes’ that the Sanderson Sisters are resurrected once more.”
The real fun of this film kicks in when the Sanderson Sisters are set loose on the ‘modern’ world. Tormenting children in costumes, figuring out what a television is and running over zombie fingers left, right and centre. Yes, there are a whole heap of inconsistencies, the women don’t know what a bus is, yet Winnie jokes about Max’s drivers permit, clearly knowing too much of the modern world considering she’s been dead for 300 years. However, I couldn’t care less about consistency and logic, I’m watching a Disney film after all! Which leads to the other clear sign of this, a musical number.This is a Bette Midler film and a Disney production so of course there’s a musical interlude, and it’s just as fun as it used to be. Camp, over the top and spectacular, Midler’s personalised rendition of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ is a highlight of the film, entrancing me just as much as the parents stuck dancing until their death.
In revisiting this film I’ve realised it is filled with names I love. Written by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert it’s no wonder the adult audience still appreciate this film. I will forever hold a soft spot for the incredibly talented, and utterly sweet Doug Jones and can’t believe I had no idea he was Billy the scorned Zombie. This made me fall even more in love with the hero turning, foul breathed, undead cutie.
The makeup department must have had a field day with this film, and the costume department has inspired dress envy in many young women. Also I’m a sucker for the autumnal beauty of this film, this set my standard for what all Halloweens should forever look like. The effects are pure 90s, with crackling lighting coming from Winnie’s fingers and the ridiculous, yet super cute, cat animation that clearly inspires the similar look for Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It’s of it’s time visually but that just ups the nostalgia factor on rewatch.
Hocus Pocus may feel like a guilty pleasure sometimes but it is definitely a Halloween tradition that many follow. Revisiting it year after year is always fun, but the fans want more. There have been calls for a sequel for a long time, a return to the spellbound Salem and the new generation of Sandersons. Apparently there is a sequel in development and the original cast of beloved witches, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy and the legendary Bette Midler have already set up a tribute to their witchy counterparts which will happen at Midler’s annual Halloween fundraising event. I’m crossing my ‘dead man’s toes’ that the Sanderson Sisters are resurrected once more.
Here’s hoping we get another cult classic that embraces the childish fun and adult humour of the original. Remember, you’re never too old for a little ‘hocus pocus’.