Autumn Classics: Hocus Pocus

25 years ago, Bette Midler and her coven lost the fight but won our spiteful hearts.

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Autumn Classics: <i>Hocus Pocus</i>

As the sun sets earlier and the grocery stores start stocking squashes and plenty of nutmeg, lots of cinephiles turn back to the spooky and macabre movies of fall. This month, Ken Lowe is taking a look back at four Autumn Classics celebrating major milestones this year. Be sure to check out our looks at Halloween and The Nightmare Before Christmas. This week, we’re examining the dark tale of witchcraft and virginity, Hocus Pocus.

I missed the Hocus Pocus boat back in 1993, and it’s just as well that I did, because this is a celebration of women on the prowl and a slyly could-it-be-unintentional parody of the fecklessness of the Default Teenage White Male Protagonist that I just would have dismissed. The now-25-year-old cult classic returns to some theaters this spooky film season once more, and it’s sure to bring out some cosplayers. It’s hard to imagine anything this simultaneously dark and yet gamely ridiculous being marketed as a kids’ film these days. The House With a Clock in Its Walls doesn’t come close.

I don’t need to tell this to anybody who knows and loves this movie, but if you’ve wandered in here without any prior knowledge, just know that the best way to enjoy it is to go in knowing that the Sanderson Sisters, witches portrayed with maximum makeup and mugging by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Peggy Hill herself, Kathy Najimy, are the protagonists, and whether or not this is a tragedy entirely rests on whether you think they had a good time. (It really seems like they did.)

It also wouldn’t be a creature feature without veteran actor Doug Jones, who plays a hapless, mute zombie minion whose greatest triumph is that he manages to go the f*ck back to sleep. Indeed, for most of the characters in this movie, death is actually a sweet, sweet release.

The sisters are honest-to-goodness witches bedeviling the town of Salem in puritan times. The young man, Thackery Binx (who for some reason is played by Sean Murray in real life but whose voice is later replaced by that of Jason Marsden) goes running barefoot into the dark woods when his sister goes missing. He finds her at the house of the Sanderson sisters, bewitched and ready to be sacrificed so the three sorceresses can drain her of her youth. So far so Disney, until Binx loses. Bette Midler and her wicked sisters just straight up consume his sister’s life force, turn Binx into a cat, and then just blithely cover up the kid’s body with a blanket when the fuzz show up. (Her feet are still sticking out from under it.)

The sisters are hanged, but not before pronouncing a curse on the town. Binx, meanwhile, is cursed with miserable, hideous unlife trapped in the body of a feline, unrecognized by his surviving family and doomed to wander the alleyways of the world alone with his guilt, neither truly cat nor man. It’s explicitly established later that lethal trauma inflicted upon his body just heals itself and he scampers on, never to feel the sweet repose of oblivion.

Damn, Hocus Pocus.

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Three hundred years later, a disaffected teenager named Max (Omri Katz, Mr. Eerie, Indiana himself) finds himself grappling with all the boring, predictable bullshit every disaffected teenager named Max was dealing with in a ’90s movie. We are not discussing any of that, because it is not the point of the movie and you already know all of it. Max likes a girl, he has a rough relationship with his parents and his annoying little sister but he loves her, some bullies steal his shoes. (There are two scenes in the early going with young men running around barefoot—is director Kenny Ortega the reverse Joss Whedon?)

The only thing anybody cares about regarding Max—and this is repeated with spiteful glee multiple times throughout this movie—is that he is a virgin. This is apparently an important plot point because only a virgin can light the Black Flame Candle which returns the Sanderson sisters to life. While bumbling around like a moron trying to impress a girl he likes on Halloween night, he busts into the perfectly preserved witch’s house to do just that. The Sanderson coven comes bursting in, apparently none the worse for wear after three hundred years in actual hell, which they explicitly state they have been hanging out in. Apparently Dean Winchester and Dante Alighieri are just wimps because these ladies give the viewer the impression that hell ain’t sh*t.

Returned to their earthly mission to devour the souls of the town’s obnoxious children, the sisters spend most of the rest of the movie wandering around, bouncing off of one-shot characters and misunderstanding the context of the 20th century costume festival in which they have found themselves. They get horny with a bus driver. They marvel over asphalt and vacuum cleaners. They are convinced that a lecherous old man running a party out of his house is the actual devil and thus proceed to fangirl all over him.

Max, Binx (having taken a rank in Talking Human in his 300 deathless years of wandering), Max’s younger sister Allison (Vinessa Shaw) and the love interest Dani (Thora Birch) all take it upon themselves to stop the witches and make fun of Max for being a virgin. None of their scenes add up to much besides being scared by the witches or not being believed by the jerk-ass adults. Since the entire plot revolves around them just running out the clock, it’s fair to say that nothing they do matters at all: At one point they seize some initiative and burn the witches alive in an incinerator (which is located inside their school?!?!?!?) and the trio just reconstitute themselves all over again with barely a scratch. I’m serious: These kids are not the protagonists of this movie.

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The culmination of all this nonsense comes when Midler and her crew openly bewitch an entire adults-only dance party with a musical number, cursing the grown-ups to dance themselves to death, right after Max warns them not to fall for it. (The Sanderson sisters don’t know what asphalt is, but they have great microphone technique.) It’s worth mentioning that Max & Co. don’t even bother to go check to see if this spell has worn off after their fake-out victory. (It hasn’t.)

You know how it ends, I guess: Max and his conspirators all win by letting the timer run out, and the coming dawn de-atomizes the witches. It’s too bad. They’re way less of a drag to hang out with than Max and Dani. Binx, freed finally from his merciless deathlessness, appears before the kids for an ending so saccharine that I now have diabetes. He explains to the cheery spirit of his murdered sister that he had to wait for a virgin to light a candle. Max can’t even win when he wins.

Hocus Pocus was savaged by critics, and debuting at #4 its opening weekend, it probably wasn’t considered a success by Disney. But apparently it was beloved enough by audiences that it’s heading back to theaters this month in some lucky cities. It remains a movie that is rooted in the pageantry and macabre spirit of Halloween, which is not a horror movie, and which still has a strong subversive streak hidden in it. For a lot of viewers looking to curl up with a fall flick this time of year—or who occasionally feel like cackling as they feast upon the people who call women “witches”—that’s just the ticket.


Kenneth Lowe writes more at his blog. Be sure to check back later this month for our final Autumn Classics feature, 1998’s Practical Magic.

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