I first saw Hocus Pocus as a fourteen-year-old boy when it came out in 1993, and I was unimpressed by every aspect of it except for Sarah Jessica Parker’s witch cleavage. But I know the movie has since then somehow attained cult classic status, and was even shown at the Alamo on Halloween. So what did I miss back then, when teenage me was busy stating at SJP’s “yobbos,” as this Disney movie refers to them? Is Hocus Pocus really equivalent to the stop motion Rudolph movie? I wanted to find out, so this time I went in open minded, looking for the hidden gems that have elevated this movie to stand alongside the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Nightmare Before Christmas.
I still have no idea where those gems are. Maybe providing padding to the yobbos?
Hocus Pocus is the story of three witch sisters who terrorized Puritan era Salem, Mass, were hanged to death, and then are accidentally brought back to life in the “tubular” nineties by a wise-cracking California teen, his local witch enthusiast love interest, and his wise cracking eight-old-sister. This is a kids movie, and kind of a broad comedy, so hijinks most definitely ensue, to the point where a pie in the face would not have seemed out of place.
The thing that stands out the most in this movie is the performance of the witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and SJP. It’s evident that someone told those ladies to just go nuts, to play the wackiest, most over the top, sixties Batman TV show villains they possibly could, and they shot for the moon. For this movie to have a chance, the viewer just has to lean into that, and I made peace with it. Midler spends the whole movie yelling, SJP giggling, and Najimy acts kind of like a St. Bernard, snuffling around for children. It’s silly, but it’s not terrible, and it’s easy to see why all three said they would do a sequel—they’re clearly having a ball. This is a movie for kids, and I bet this kind of scenery chewing is part of what they like about Hocus Pocus.
This campy tone rises to its greatest height during the film’s two musical numbers—one performed by Midler (natch!) and one sort of creepy performance by SJP. I guess its saying something that their antics have been so over-the –top throughout the movie that these songs don’t really snap you out of the plot at all.
It’s everything else that lets this movie down. The jokes and story of this movie feel like they were written by and for Hollywood septuagenarians (probably close to the truth). E.T. (arguably another Halloween classic) is set in suburbia to provide a normalizing backdrop for the crazy events of the film. But to the people who made Hocus Pocus, suburban 90s Massachusetts was so strange they needed a fish out of water protagonist to make themselves feel comfortable, Hollywood transplant Max. In Hocus Pocus’ Salem, the residents have never heard of Los Angeles (only L.A.) and Max is singled out in his high school class as being a California hippy because he’s wearing tie-die. IN 1993. He also later refers to himself as “a rap singer” (signified by his sideways baseball hat) and when he’s trying to be scary, calls himself “Boris Karloff Jr.” IN 1993.
The movie also can’t stay consistent within its own plot. It’s established early on that the witches can’t touch the hallowed ground of a graveyard, but Midler ends up laying on that ground and walking around on it with no trouble at the end of the flick. There are also numerous gags about how the witches deal with the modern world since they’ve been dead for three hundred years. They don’t know what a bus is, they’re scared of fire trucks, and they’ve never seen a road. But while pursuing the main characters in a later scene, a broomstick riding Midler pulls up alongside a speeding SUV and drops right into a Bugs Bunny schtick where she pretends to be a traffic cop and asks for their driving permit. I know this is a kids movie about witches, but were those traffic gags really worth breaking the story? I bet they were to the ancient vaudevillian studio exec who probably wrote them.
Obviously, I just don’t get this movie. To me, the Nightmare Before Christmas, E.T. and their ilk are transporting classics that whisk you to another universe and make you feel deep, real things. Hocus Pocus is like an overly long Three Stooges sketch with a talking cat (oh yeah, there is a talking cat.) So I asked a younger co-worker (born in 1993!! SHUDDER) why she thinks it’s a classic. She said it’s because she watches it every year on Halloween with her family, and always has. It was just scary enough to feel like Halloween, but not so scary it causes nightmares, she said. Also, her favorite character is SJP, “because she’s so funny.” I didn’t ask her about the yobbos.