On Hocus Pocus

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This cult classic wasn’t always such a hit, such as this New York Times review states:

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Apparently too much eye of newt got into the formula for “Hocus Pocus,” transforming a potentially wicked Bette Midler vehicle into an unholy mess. That’s too bad, since Ms. Midler’s appearance in a role like the one she has here could have been pure witchcraft. As the foremost of three sisters from 17th-century Salem who are magically transported forward three centuries to bedevil modern trick or treaters, Ms. Midler flounces in high comic style. Not for her the cackling and hobbling of ordinary screen witches; Ms. Midler grandly plays this harpy as if she were Norma Desmond tackling the opening of “Macbeth.”

Ms. Midler’s performance is such a crazy amalgam of great-lady mannerisms and withering sneers that it deserves to have been shown off more clearly. Instead, the star is buried beneath a mountain of makeup, while the combined effects of prosthetic buck teeth and affected Britishisms make her hard to hear. More problematic, the movie that has been built around Ms. Midler’s feisty Winifred is badly cluttered, as the witches mix with zombies, parents and teen-agers on Halloween. Entirely too diverting is the spectacle of an entire cast elaborately overdressed for a costume party.

giphy“Hocus Pocus” is aimed squarely at the Nowheresville between juvenile and adult audiences, making its most blatant pitch for the young teen-age crowd. So despite the presence of sly Winifred, buffoonish Mary (Kathy Najimy) and cleavage-flashing Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), who have been programmed to walk and fly together in comical team maneuvers, the film gives equal time to its nice-kid characters.

The witches’ young nemeses are Max (Omri Katz), a new high school boy in town, and his cute, wisecracking sister, Dani (played by the effervescent Thora Birch as if she were an honorary member of the Culkin family). Also in the cast is Vinessa Shaw as Max’s pretty new classmate. She inadvertently brings down the house by trying to explain the witches vs. teen-agers battle with a straight face.

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As directed by Kenny Ortega, “Hocus Pocus” has flashes of visual stylishness but virtually no grip on its story (from a screenplay by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert). It changes tone as casually as the actors don their masquerade costumes, and has no scruples about breaking its own mood altogether (as when the three witches suddenly perform “I Put a Spell on You” at a Halloween party).Perhaps the film’s most trenchant remark comes from Penny Marshall, who has a brief cameo with her brother, Garry, as (it seems) Mr. and Mrs. Devil, and asks the witches, “Aren’t you broads a little old to be out trick or treating?”

Of special note in “Hocus Pocus” are a computer-generated talking cat, whose laboriously achieved presence falls under the heading of stupid pet tricks, and a finale that drags out almost all the film’s characters for a series of needless, sentimental goodbyes. When brave Max and a weepy Dani bid an emotional farewell to Billy, a zombie who has helped them out for the evening but now must return to the grave, it truly is time to say goodbye.

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“Hocus Pocus” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes very mild scares, occasional rude language and a few jokes about one young character’s virginity. Hocus Pocus Directed by Kenny Ortega; written by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert, based on a story by David Kirschner and Mr. Garris; director of photography, Hiro Narita; edited by Peter E. Berger; music by John Debney; production designer, William Sandell; produced by Mr. Kirschner and Steven Haft; released by Walt Disney.

Ouch! But over the years, it started to grow into the Halloween hit, as this Mashable article, “Why You’re Crazy Addicted to ‘Hocus Pocus’” explains:

The entirety of Hocus Pocus takes place on Halloween night, minus a witchy flashback to colonial times. A California family settles into life in the magic-obsessed town of (where else?) Salem, Massachusetts. Max, the tie-dye-wearing teen, takes little sister Dani trick-or-treating, but things start to take an adventurous turn. After eventually scooping up Allison, his classroom crush, they take a trip to the haunted house of the Sanderson sisters, three witches who were hanged 300 years ago. Max, unafraid of superstition, lights the black flame candle, which brings them back from the dead (as long as it’s lit by a virgin). Mayhem ensues. And for good measure — there’s a talking cat.

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There were a lot of elements rooting against the film. Initially, it was pegged as a Disney Channel Original Movie, instead of being released in theaters. Though millennials of a certain age can fondly recall their favorite DCOM (Brink!, anyone?), those little films didn’t tend to draw huge audiences (rare exception: High School Musical).

In 1993, before we could tweet our favorite things into cult stardom, Hocus Pocus had a fat chance of getting noticed. However, Disney saw potential in the script, according to IMDb, and decided to release it in theaters.

But here’s strike two: These days, movie executives do everything to capitalize on holiday fever by strategically releasing each and every film. If Hocus Pocus had been released today, it would have hit theaters in late September, or October. But instead, Hocus Pocus was released on July 16. In addition, it came out on the same day as Free Willy, the feel-good, blockbuster movie about a boy and an orca whale.

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The perplexing marketing move is one of many reasons the film performed poorly. Though it starred familiar faces, the ill-timed release sank its prospects. Why take your kid to a film about three evil witches being brought to life by a teen virgin, when you could see a heartwarming flick about whales instead? Hocus Pocus earned just $39,514,713 domestically.

The movie was released on VHS on Sept. 9, 1994, a little over a year after its poor theatrical showing. Sales of the video started to pick up, steadily increasing over the years. The film was later released on DVD on June 4, 2002. That rise still hasn’t slowed, in part because of its slightly risqué script.

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The generation who grew up watching it can relive it and finally understand the many adult-themed jokes that lace the dialogue. (How many 8-year-olds actually know what a virgin is?) It manages to have the right amount of spice and scariness, teetering on the cusp of child film and secret adult guilty pleasure. Christina Cauterucci of NPR writes about its surprisingly inappropriate jokes:

“Why is this movie, which I only saw once or twice while I was in the target age demographic, so much more fun to watch as a grown-up? Like most children’s films these days (Pixar’s especially), Hocus Pocus serves up a heaping helping of adult humor that went way over my head back in the early ’90s.”

Case in point: When one character tells another to “Go to hell!”, decidedly angry language for children’s ears. Or, when 8-year-old Dani accidentally tells Allison that Max likes her “yabbos.” Or when Winifred tells a leering bus driver that she “desires children” (so she can suck out their souls), and he cheekily replies with, “Hey, that may take me a couple of tries, but I don’t think that’d be a problem.” Jokes for adults, sneakily packed into a kid movie.

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It works double time, catering to any age group who watches it. And many age groups are, with its relentless yearly showings on television. Since 2007, the film has been a top telecast of ABC Family’s flagship 13 Nights of Halloween series. In 2009, 2.5 million people tuned in to watch it on a Saturday evening, making it the most-watched movie in the series. Since then, it has aired two or three times per year on the network, an ABC spokesperson tells Mashable.

Sales of the DVD also tend to grow every October. Movie data site The Numbers tells Mashable that in 2008, sales were $659,560. The next year, $911,461. The next year, it broke a million with $1,155,773. The peak year was 2012, where it sold $2,324,042 worth of units. Come 2013, it’s still in the millions, moving $1,808,035 DVDs.

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Unlike other cult films, Hocus Pocus didn’t generate its status by slipping into mystery after its theatrical release. It rose ruthlessly, bolstered by the constant TV airings which help bring in a new crowd every year. Just this month, it’s become the second most-searched movie on Yahoo by 908% (beaten only by Maleficent, a brand new movie released this year).

Midler, who still considers the film one of her favorites she’s ever done, thinks the movie took off for another reason.

“We made it before the tidal wave of Halloween happened,” she told Katie Couric. “Now it’s like huge. It’s huge—kids, grown-ups, everyone takes part in it. This movie was kind of like the beginning of the wave.”

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2 thoughts on “On Hocus Pocus

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of Smallville: Season 4 | The Progressive Democrat

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