Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
Directed by Kenny Ortega and written by Neil Cuthbert & Mick Garris, 1993’s Hocus Pocus involves a villainous comedic trio of sisters (who happen to be witches) in Salem, Mass. They’ve been dead for 300 years — since Halloween night 1693 — but are accidentally resurrected by teenage boy Max. Hijinks and shenanigans ensue, with a lot of the comedy relying upon the witchy sisters’ confusion about life in 1993.
Hocus Pocus had a long history at Disney, starting in 1984 when the studio bought Garris’s original script — a much darker and scarier story under the working title of Disney’s Halloween House. (Fun facts: The Winifred part was written for Cloris Leachman, and Leonardo DiCaprio was offered the role of Max, instead choosing to. make What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.) Over the next eight years, rewrites made the film more comedic than scary and morphed the 12-year-old characters into teens. Production hiccupped until 1992, when the project moved forward as soon as Bette Midler expressed interest in starring as Winifred. (Midler is quoted as saying that Hocus Pocus “was the most fun I’d had in my career up to that point.) John Debney composed and conducted the score across just two weeks in place of James Horner, who became suddenly unavailable. (Horner did write Sarah’s theme, “Come Little Children,” though, which is performed by Sarah Jessica Parker.)
Rather oddly, Walt Disney Pictures released Hocus Pocus on July 16, 1993 — a choice David Kirschner said was to take advantage of children being off from school for the summer. Turns out the film was a flop that lost Disney about $16.5 million and the critical response was mixed at best — with some calling it hokey, mediocre, muddled, dreadful, confusing, lackluster and inclusive of “a lot of hysterical shrieking.” Ty Burr said “adults will find it only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell” and added that while Parker and Kathy Najimy (rounding out the trio of witches) “have their moments of ramshackle comic inspiration […] the sight of the Divine Miss M, mugging her way through a cheesy supernatural kiddie comedy is, to say the least, dispiriting.” Gene Siskel called Hocus Pocus a “dreadful witches’ comedy with the only tolerable moment coming when Bette Midler presents a single song.”
To each their own, says I, ‘cuz I love this movie. I love the hell-bent wonderful and awful performances of Midler, Najimy, and Parker. They’re all just so annoying yet fun to watch, hamming their way through a crazy script that really only makes sense because you want it to make sense. Their characters are over the top, but then again, they’re witches. And Disney witches. I mean, come on. The child characters / actors are pretty annoying (and half are teenaged characters … ugh, even worse!). But then again, they’re child actors. And Disney child actors. Again: I mean, come on. The only enjoyable children characters in Disney movies are animated ones, and even then, it’s a mixed bag.
As for the legacy of Hocus Pocus, annual airings on the Disney Channel and on Freeform (formerly ABC Family) propelled it to annual Halloween popularity. It went on to achieve cult status — especially after a more cleverly timed VHS release in September 1994 and a DVD release in 2002 — because of yearly spikes in home-video sales every Halloween season.
The plot is simple yet convoluted in execution. On October 31, 1693, in Salem, Mass., teenager Thackery Binx sees his little sister, Emily, kidnapped by three witches, the Sanderson sisters — Winifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker) and Mary (Najimy). They cast a rather vampire-like spell on Emily to soul-suck her lifeforce and regain their own youth. Of course, they kill her in the process and then turn Thackery into an immortal black cat haunted by guilt for not saving his little sister.
The townsfolk capture the witches and hang them, but not before Winifred’s spellbook casts a spell that will resurrect them during a full moon on All Hallows’ Eve when a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle. Stuck as an immortal cat that no one realizes is a boy, Thackery guards the witches’ house to keep any virgins from fulfilling the spell and resurrecting the witches. (Pause for a moment: A spellbook casting spells on its own? For real, writers?)
Three hundred years later, the Sanderson sisters are mere legend in Salem — where teenager Max Dennison takes his little sister, Dani, trick-or-treating on All Hallows’ Eve (or Halloween). They run into Max’s crush, Allison, who just happens to mention that her family owns the old Sanderson house. Max, who doesn’t believe in witches but wants to impress Allison, asks her to show him the house. Of course, once inside, virgin Max lights the Black Flame Candle and accidentally resurrects the three witches.
The Sanderson sisters quickly realize that they must soul-suck the lifeforce out of every child in Salem or else they’ll disintegrate. And they must have a thing for little sisters of teenage boys because (of course) they go after Dani first. Max rescues Dani, however, foiling their plan, and Thackery the immortal black cat tells Max to steal Winifred’s spellbook. (For a reason I can’t recall, Max and Dani can understand Thackery, whom they instead call Binx.) After Max’s theft, the witches pursue Max, Dani and Thackery / Binx to a cemetery. Here, the real fun starts because Winifred raises her long-buried, unfaithful lover Billy Butcherson, whose mouth she had sewn shut after she poisoned him. Billy is a zombie, and she wants him to help her chase down the children to soul-suck them and recover her spellbook.(Another pause for a moment: If for no other reason, this film is worth watching for Doug Jones, who wonderfully plays Billy.)
As all the child-chasing ensues, we enjoy some hilarity as the three witches try to understand life in the 20th century. None of the time-warp shenanigans are actually very funny in and of themselves, but the performances of Midler, Najimy and Parker make them work. The witches are horrified by the fact that their sacred All Hallows’ Eve has now become Halloween, a human holiday with parties and trick-or-treating. (Fun fact: Look for an uncredited Garry Marshall as Master Devil and an uncredited Penny Marshall as Petunia Lady, the Master Devil’s wife.)
Of course, the upside of Halloween celebrations in 20th-century Salem is that the witches can walk around without fear because everyone thinks they’re just dressed up as witches. They chase the children all over town, using Mary’s enhanced sense of smell. Max, Allison and Dani find their (of course ineffectual) parents at a Halloween party at the town hall, but Winifred has enchanted all the adults at the party to dance until they die. The children manage to trap the witches in a kiln at the high school and burn them alive. Unfortunately for our little band of heroic children, Winifred’s spellbook somehow revives them again.
Thinking the witches are dead, Max and Allison open the spellbook to reverse the spell on Thackery / Binx. Uh-oh. Big mistake. The spellbook reveals their location, the witches kidnap Dani and Binx and retrieve the spellbook once again. Sarah then uses her siren-like singing to mesmerize all of Salem’s children, luring them like a Pied Piper to the Sandersons’ house. Max and Allison rescue Dani and Thackery / Binx (and the rest of the children, except two school bullies) by tricking the witches into believing the time of sunrise is an hour earlier than it really is. (Oh, yeah, there’s a sunrise deadline I forgot to mention.)
Back to the cemetery we go, where zombie Billy joins Max to protect Dani. Billy decides to cut open his own stitched-up mouth so that he can yell insults at Winifred, after which the witches lose their shit and attack our heroes. Winifred tries to soul-suck Dani using the only vial of soul-sucking potion she possesses, but Thackery / Binx jumps on Winifred, knocking the potion into Max’s hand. Winifred throws Thackery / Binx to the ground, where he lies injured on the grave of his little sister. Max drinks the poison to force Winifred to soul-suck him instead of Dani. Luckily for all (except the witches), the ploy of the wrong sunrise time works and the sun comes up as Winifred is almost done soul-sucking Max — turning her into a stone statue. She disintegrates into dust, as do her sisters.
With the witches finally defeated forever, Max, Dani and Allison say goodbye to Billy, who returns to his grave, finally able to rest in peace. Thackery / Binx dies — yes, Disney kills off a lovable cat! — but his human soul is free. So a ghostly Thackery / Binx reunites with the spirit of his little sister and, fading visually, they walk together through a heavenly gate. As the end credits begin, we see the exhausted adult partygoers — remember all those ineffectual adults — now free from the dance-until-you-die spell, returning to their homes totally unaware they’d been enchanted. The film ends with Winifred’s spellbook opening its eye. The spellbook is still alive! Thus, the witches could possibly return!
A sequel, directed by Adam Shankman, is in development as a Disney+ exclusive film, with a screenplay written by Jen D’Angelo. It might be a “better” movie, but I doubt it will be as much fun as Hocus Pocus. If you don’t already own your own DVD of Hocus Pocus, buy one and watch it now, as a summer movie. You won’t regret it, for two reasons. Doesn’t this Endless Summer deserve a great zombie performance from Doug Jones? And bonus fun for Midler, Najimy and Parker hamming it up; we all deserve a few laughs right now, right?!