Remembering ‘Hocus Pocus’

by Bobby Finger

I have never owned Hocus Pocus. Even when viewing it for the nth time last week, I paid $1.99 for a 48-hour rental from Amazon’s Instant Video service. The act of renting Hocus Pocus — giving it a temporary home one evening during the month of October — feels as tied to Halloween as the movie itself. It’s not a movie you keep, but instead one you revisit every year out of obligation to your childhood. You seek it out. You enjoy it. You put it away. Because what is this holiday but candy, the color orange, pumpkin spice fill-in-the-blank, costumes, and family fantasy movies starring Bette Midler? Yes, Hocus Pocus is an important part of this holiday, but it’s also a Disney movie about a three sister cannibals who come back to life because a virgin lights a candle. And that’s weird.

Hocus Pocus begins with a brief prologue, set in 17th-century Salem, in which the Sanderson sisters (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimi, and Sarah Jessica Parker as themselves) are hanged after sucking the life out of a nice little girl named Emily. Her brother Thackeray’s failed attempt to save her leaves him directly in the witches’ crosshairs, so they decide to turn him into an immortal cat because apparently that’s punishment. The sisters are quickly caught and hanged, but not before casting a spell that will resurrect them if some kind of demon candle is lit by a virgin during a full moon on Halloween. Whether or not the witches count hand and mouth stuff as actual sex is not explained, but let’s just assume that yes, they do. After all, they do in real life. Because it’s all sex, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s all risky. So be safe. Didn’t you read about that new antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea that’s highly contagious through oral sex? I didn’t, but someone who did read it told me about it. And it’s serious. You should be scared. By all means, have fun! Just be safe.

After this violent setup, we jump to 1993, where Salem is preparing for Halloween just as some tie-dye-wearing kid from California and his little sister saunter into town. His name is Max and he is a virgin. We know this because the movie is very insistent on reminding its audience of his virginity, regardless of how uncomfortable the constant mention of a teenager’s virginity makes us. Max’s sister’s name is Dani and her virginity is thankfully never speculated upon. Meanwhile, Max has a crush on a girl named Allison (whose non-virgin status is implied, but now I’m uncomfortable), is bullied by someone who goes by “Ice” (an actor who looks like a young Randy Quaid, and whose virginity status irrelevant), and hates his parents (both sexual maniacs) for moving from the chilliest state in the country to a town known for witches and its inhabitants’ obsession with virgins. Once everyone is adequately introduced, Max reluctantly agrees to take Dani trick or treating and, after being joined by Allison early in the evening, the three head to the still-standing home of the Sanderson sisters so the virgin can prove just how brave and masculine he is to the probably-not-a-virgin.

And now the movie can really pick up steam. Thackery, the immortal cat, fails to stop Max from lighting the candle, so Bette, Kathy, and Sarah return from the dead. The movie’s pacing is one of its most admirable attributes. At just 90 minutes, there’s almost no downtime, and the draw of the Bette/Kathy/Sarah trio was obviously well understood by the film’s producers; they’re onscreen often and for extended periods of time. Even as a kid I watched Hocus Pocus to see Bette Midler, not the children at the heart of Disney’s demo. (I was also the little boy who watched Big Business as often as most kids my age were watching The Land Before Time, so, there you have it.) The point is, they’re perfectly cast and genuinely funny. While watching it last week I was surprised by how often I laughed out loud at their sisterly bickering and futile attempts at adjusting to a future in which people run amok (amok amok amok!) on a day they all revere. As an audience, you almost want them to win — even if winning involves cannibalism. They’re not pleasant or forgiving witches — they’re followers of Satan who lock kids in cages, slam them against walls, shoot electric bolts into their hearts, and openly discuss plans to eat them while reading from a spell book made of human flesh. With this kind of evil at the forefront, the stakes in Hocus Pocus are unusually high for a family film. If Max, Dani, and Allison don’t succeed, the witches will literally suck the life out of every child in Salem.

But Bette, Kathy, and Sarah aren’t always focused on killing children. Hocus Pocus’ funniest and most memorable moments involve the witches attempting to make sense of modern life. After Max calls a fire sprinkler the “black rain of death,” they hide in terror until realizing that “’tis but water.” When their 17th-century brooms are stolen, they improvise with a modern broom, mop, and vacuum that mysteriously turns on even when not plugged in. And when a young girl in an angel costume curtsies and blesses them, they shriek. They even take a fulfill Midler’s contractually obligated song-per-movie policy by singing “I Put a Spell on You” at a high school gymnasium. But the film’s funniest, most bizarre scene (and one that deserves 1,000 words of its own) is something that would feel out of place in any film, let alone a family fantasy released by Disney. It occurs when they notice an old man dressed as Satan (Garry Marshall — I’ll refer to him Garry) handing out candy in front of his home. Convinced that he is the actual Dark Lord and not just Garry Marshall, they follow him inside and begin to do what can only be described as awkward flirting. Wearing curlers the witches interpret as the hair of Medusa, his wife (inexplicably and disgustingly played by Penny Marshall — Garry’s IRL sister) quickly becomes annoyed by the witches and heads upstairs. Kathy watches television and screams at a commercial featuring a running baby, Bette mistakes a kitchen for a torture chamber, and Sarah dances with the man she believes is Satan, making the kind of sexual advances Garry Marshall has probably been receiving since reaching his sexual peak 100 years ago. When Penny walks in on the sensual demon-dancing, she kicks the hags out. Why the witches don’t just kill her is unexplained, as is the reason a casting director would cast a brother and sister as a sexually frustrated husband and wife. It’s a weird moment, but it’s also the film’s best.

And then the sun rises, the witches die, Thackary’s spirit is finally released, and he reunites with his sister (who has apparently been waiting patiently for 300 years because the Binxes are a family that refuses to move on). The virgin? He lives. The probably-not-a-virgin? She lives too. Thora Birch? She goes on to star in American Beauty. American Beauty? Initially acclaimed, yet currently maligned. And what about us? We put Hocus Pocus away, spend a year remembering it as something much lighter, and return to it the following October, when we’ll be surprised and comforted by its weirdness.

Previously: The 42 Best Movie Couples of 1993.

Also: You can watch Hocus Pocus in its entirety on YouTube. Right now.

Bobby Finger wants Apple O’s, gummy worms, and Reese’s Pieces or get out of my face.