Hocus Pocus, Revisited

Hocus Pocus (1993) has reached cult status in recent years and is now a seasonal cinematic staple, particularly amongst millennials. To call this series “revisited” is a little bit of a misnomer; I first watched the film in childhood, but it has become a seasonal staple that I faithfully re-watch every Halloween (at least for the last 5 years). Directed by Kenny Ortega (of 80’s teen movie fame), Hocus Pocus was not initially considered a box office success, but has since redeemed itself and is screened here in Massachusetts every October. Set in Salem, MA, the film centers around the three Sanderson sisters, local witches, and their exploits with local teens both in the late 1600s and in the 1990s when they are brought back to life. Hocus Pocus’ contemporary success may be in part because it draws on the elements of several different genres: part fairytale, part 80’s teen drama, and yes even part musical. 

The beginning of the film in particular reads as an opening of a dark fairytale, both from a setting and from a character standpoint. Thackery Binx, a 1600’s Salem boy attempts to rescue his sister Emily who has been taken prisoner by the Sandersons. He arrives in time to see the sisters suck the life out of Emily and, though he thwarts them by destroying their potion, he is doomed to eternal life as a black cat. Although the townspeople arrive too late to rescue Thackery and Emily, they do hang the Sanderson sisters for their crimes. 

From this opening segment though, the film transitions into a more familiar (and decidedly less romantic) setting of the 1990’s, incorporating elements of the 1980’s teen drama. Max Dennison, a teen boy who just moved to Salem from California, scoffs at the story of the Sanderson sisters, as told in his class. He endures knucklehead bullies, has a crush on a girl, and has oblivious (though well-intentioned) parents. 

Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw, and Omri Katz in Hocus Pocus (1993)

While I don’t think this film can be classified as a musical, it has two fantastic musical numbers that make excellent use of its all-star cast’s talents. Sarah Jessica Parker’s broadway background is on display in “Come Little Children”, the song she uses to lure children to their house in the third act. Also, Bette Middler’s high-energy performance of “I Put on a Spell on You” is absolutely iconic and lives in my mind rent-free. These musical interludes definitely break up the seriousness of the film and temporarily lighten or change the mood. 

For me, this film is the cinema equivalent of bringing out your favorite sweaters in the fall. Even though I of course identified more with Dani when I first watched this film, in my opinion it does hold up to an adult sense of humor, which is likely why it has remained so popular to this day. In fact, it is noticeably darker and adult compared to other Disney films, with numerous sexual allusions (including hammering home the fact that Max is, in fact, a virgin). It’s much darker than the Disney Halloween films that followed and I can’t see it being made today. Overall, it’s a light-hearted, family friendly fiction about a chapter in Massachusetts’ history that was undoubtedly dark, complicated, and political. The film is over-the-top campy and dark, but still incredibly fun.

2 comments on “Hocus Pocus, Revisited

  1. Ah, Salem MA, nice calm town as I remember it. It’s got a bad Rap, due to a blip in history. Was it the ladies, or some misguided scared adults that were in the same town? Ted K.

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