Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”
Title: Hocus Pocus
Budget: $28 million
Box office: $39.5 million
Plot: On October 31, 1693 near Salem, Massachusetts, Thackery Binx sees his little sister, Emily, spirited away to the cottage of three witches. There, the Sanderson sisters, Winifred, Sarah and Mary, cast a spell on Emily to absorb her youth and regain their own, killing her in the process. Thackery confronts the witches who transform him into an immortal black cat cursed to live forever with his guilt for not saving Emily. The townsfolk, led by Binx’s father, capture the witches. But before being hanged, Winifred’s spellbook casts a curse that will resurrect the witches during a full moon on All Hallows’ Eve when any virgin lights the Black Flame Candle. Thackery guards the cottage to ensure no one summons the witches.
300 years later in October 31, 1993, on Halloween, Max Dennison is feeling unsettled from his family’s sudden move from Los Angeles, California to Salem, Massachusetts. Max takes his younger sister Dani trick-or-treating, where they run into Max’s new crush Allison. Allison mentions that her family owns the Sanderson cottage as a museum. Max, in an effort to impress Allison, invites her to show him the Sanderson house to convince him that the witches were real.
Investigating inside the cottage, Max lights the Black Flame Candle and inadvertently resurrects the witches, who plot to continue their plan to suck out the souls of all of Salem’s children, beginning with Dani. Escaping, Max steals Winifred’s spellbook on advice from Thackery. The witches pursue them to a cemetery, where Winifred raises her unfaithful lover Billy Butcherson as a zombie to chase them on foot.
The witches try to acclimate to the 20th century, but are horrified when they discover Halloween has become a holiday. The witches plan to achieve their goals or they will be disintegrated at sunrise. They pursue the children across town using Mary’s enhanced sense of smell. Max, Allison and Dani find their parents at a Halloween party at the town hall, where Winifred enchants the partygoers to dance and sing until they die. At Jacob Bailey High School, the children trap the witches in a kiln to burn them alive. While celebrating, the witches’ curse revives them again.
Not realizing that the witches haven’t truly died, Max and Allison open the spellbook in an effort to reverse the spell on Binx. The open spellbook reveals the location of the group, and the witches track them down and kidnap Dani and Thackery, and got the book back. Sarah then uses her siren-like singing to mesmerize Salem’s children, luring them to the Sandersons’ cottage. Max and Allison rescue Dani and Thackery by tricking the witches into believing sunrise came an hour early.
Back at the cemetery, Max runs into Billy, who cuts open his stitched up mouth and insults Winifred, joining Max to protect Dani. The witches attack and Winifred attempts to suck out the soul from Dani with the single vial of potion she retrieved from her cauldron. Thackery leaps on Winifred and knocks the potion out of her hand into Max’s, but is then thrown to the ground and injured at the spot where his sister Emily’s grave is.
Rather than smashing the vial, Max drinks it in order to force the witches to take him instead of Dani. The sun rises just as Winifred is about to finish draining Max’s life force, and due to standing on hallowed ground in the cemetery, she turns into a stone statue, before she is disintegrated into dust along with her sisters.
With the witches gone, a satisfied Billy returns to his grave and Thackery finally dies, freeing his soul. He thanks Max, Dani and Allison for their help, and bids farewell to them, before he and Emily walk into the afterlife. As the end credits begin, the exhausted partygoers are freed from the spell and return home.
Meanwhile, at the Sandersons’ cottage, Jay and Ernie, two male bullies who earlier tormented Max and Dani, remain imprisoned in their cages while passing the time singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. The film ends with Winnie’s spellbook opening its eye, revealing it is still alive and the witches could possibly return again.
Background: Producer David Kirschner said he came up with the idea for the film when he and his young daughter were sitting outside and his neighbor’s black cat strayed by. Kirschner invented a tale of how the cat was once a boy who was changed into a feline three hundred years ago by three witches. Production was stalled several times until 1992, when Bette Midler expressed interest in the script and the project immediately went forward.
Pioneer Village, a recreation of early-colonial Salem, was used for the opening scenes set in 1693. Other locations included Old Burial Hill in Marblehead, where Max is accosted by Ice and Jay, the Old Town Hall in Salem, where the town Halloween party takes place, and Phipps Elementary School, where the witches are trapped in a kiln. The exterior for Max and Dani’s house is a private residence on Ocean Avenue in Salem.
Music: The musical score for Hocus Pocus was composed and conducted by John Debney. James Horner was originally slated to score the film, but became unavailable at the last minute, so Debney had to score the entire film in two weeks.
- “Sarah’s Theme” – music by James Horner; lyrics by Brock Walsh; performed by Sarah Jessica Parker
- “I Put a Spell on You” – written by Jay Hawkins and produced and arranged by Marc Shaiman; performed by Bette Midler
Cast: Bette Midler returns as Winifred “Winnie” Sanderson. 1 Sarah Jessica Parker returns as Sarah Sanderson. Kathy Najimy returns as Mary Sanderson. Jason Marsden returns as the voice of Thackery Binx.
Omri Katz as Max Dennison. 2 His television and film credits include Eerie, Indiana, Matinee, Adventures in Dinosaur City, and Dallas. Thora Birch as Dani Dennison. She made her film debut in Purple People Eater and rose to prominence as a child star with appearances in films such as All I Want for Christmas, Patriot Games, Monkey Trouble, Now and Then, and Alaska. Her breakthrough role came in the film American Beauty. 3 She then starred as Enid in the cult hit Ghost World, 4 Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story, 5 Dungeons & Dragons, The Hole, Silver City, Dark Corners. Winter of Frozen Dreams, and Petunia.
Vinessa Shaw as Allison Watts. Shaw also appeared in Ladybugs, L.A. Without a Map, Eyes Wide Shut, 40 Days and 40 Nights, The Hills Have Eyes, Ray Donovan, and Clinical. Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson. He appeared in the films Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water, Tank Girl, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Absentia, Ouija: Origin of Evil, The Bye Bye Man, Falling Skies and The Strain. Since 2017, he has portrayed Commander Saru in the science fiction series Star Trek: Discovery.
Charles Rocket 6 as Dave Dennison. He was best known for his tenure as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. He appeared in Earth Girls Are Easy, It’s Pat, Steal Big Steal Little, How I Got into College, Dances with Wolves, and Dumb and Dumber. Stephanie Faracy as Jenny Dennison. She is known for playing supporting roles in films include Heaven Can Wait, Scavenger Hunt, Blind Date, The Great Outdoors, Sideways, Flightplan, and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates.
Garry and Penny Marshall have uncredited roles as the Master and the Master’s Wife
- Gene Siskel, reviewing for The Chicago Tribune, remarked that the film was a “dreadful witches’ comedy with the only tolerable moment coming when Bette Midler presents a single song.”
- The Miami Herald called it “a pretty lackluster affair”, adding this comment: “Despite the triple-threat actress combo, Hocus Pocus won’t be the Sister Act of 1993. There are a lot of gotta-sees this summer, and this isn’t one of them.”
- Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote that the film “has flashes of visual stylishness but virtually no grip on its story”.
- Ty Burr of Entertainment Weekly gave the film a C-, calling it “acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell”; and stating that while Najimy and Parker “have their moments of ramshackle comic inspiration, and the passable special effects should keep younger campers transfixed […] the sight of the Divine Miss M. mugging her way through a cheesy supernatural kiddie comedy is, to say the least, dispiriting.”
Legacy: On September 15, 2015, the Hocus Pocus Villain Spelltacular was introduced at the Magic Kingdom as a part of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. The show introduces new actresses as the Sanderson Sisters, who try to make a villain party and summon or attract various Disney villains in the process.
In July 2018, a book titled Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel was released, containing a novelization of the film and a sequel story. The sequel focuses on Max and Allison’s daughter, Poppy, who grew up hearing the family story of the first film and parents who avoid Halloween as much as possible. Poppy is skeptical of the tale and ends up in the Sanderson house on Halloween, twenty-five years to the day after the movie, in an attempt to prove there’s nothing to the story.
My take: I never cared for this film. I think I was too old to appreciate it when it was released. I found it too broad and campy to be funny, and not spooky in the slightest.
Next Week: Welcome, foolish mortals…