Hocus Pocus – A retrospective look at a holiday classic

The Crypt - Halloween Special

12 mins read

Hocus Pocus is now available on 4k UHD Blu Ray and 4k streaming

Hocus Pocus debuted in British cinemas on Friday 29th October 1993. A week in which Meat Loaf reigned supreme at number one in the UK singles chart. And Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park continued to dominate UK cinema screens 16 weeks after its initial release. While a new boyband named ‘Take That’ stormed through the music industry; wooing a whole new generation of young girls and boys with their pop prowess.

Hocus Pocus had already suffered in the USA premiering in July of 1993 against the might of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. While in the UK the film would have a more favourable premiere alongside Jane Campion’s The Piano. Its release coinciding with Halloween, in a move that should have helped Hocus Pocus rise to the top of the UK cinema charts. Alas, it wasn’t to be, and Hocus Pocus gradually slipped down the UK charts; earning a meagre £630,018 on its Halloween week debut. With the film falling from public consciousness in the weeks that followed in a sea of high profile cinema releases including Disney’s Aladdin.

So how did a film that struggled to achieve box office success become a cult classic of Halloween viewing? The answer to this lays in a movie that cleverly mixed kid’s horror with a classic Christmas film template; creating the first genuine Halloween holiday film.

Sean Murray in Hocus Pocus (Disney)

The Origins of a Cult Classic

Hocus Pocus roots lay in the vision of American story developer, artist, and producer David Kirschner. Who in the mid-1980’s pitched a story to Disney executives that he used to read to his kids. A classic Halloween story about a boy turned into a cat by a group of evil witches.

Kirschner’s story appealed to Disney executives, providing a clear link to Disney’s love of fantasy, fairytale, and childhood innocence. While also lacing his story with a Halloween theme that tied to the holiday’s growing commercialism in the USA. Starting its life under the title of ‘Halloween House,’ Disney initially offered the script to Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. And it’s here where thoughts bounced from a possible TV movie to a potential feature film. However, Spielberg eventually declined the project; his involvement in the film’s early development remaining a mystery.

Like so many scripts ‘Halloween House’ then progressed through several rewrites. The horror toned down in favour of a more ‘Disney’ family-friendly offering. Production stalling several times until 1992 when Bette Midler came on board as Winifred, the witch under the title Hocus Pocus. With Midler having already become a driving force at Disney with the success of Touchstone Pictures.

Production Still – Hocus Pocus (Disney)

With a bankable star on board, the stage was set for Hocus Pocus to go into production. With the film finding its creative lead in the guise of choreographer and emerging film director Kenny Ortega. A man who would go on to become a Disney Channel legend with both High School Musical and Descendants under his wings.

Ortega and Kirschner were both keen to cast the young Leonardo DiCaprio in the central role of Max; a move that would have seen him reunited with Thora Birch. With both the young stars having worked together on the NBC Television series Parenthood. However, DiCaprio opted to take the role of Arnie Grape in the Oscar-nominated What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. With Ortega then moving to audition several boys for Max, before opting for Omri Katz. Who had starred in Joe Dante’s cult TV series Eerie Indiana and just finished shooting the underrated Matinee.

Katz brought with him a wealth of TV experience that when coupled with Thora Birch (Dani), Vinessa Shaw (Alison), and Sean Murray (Thackery) created a dynamic young cast. Meanwhile, adult casting coupled Midler’s, Winifred with Sarah Jessica Parker (Sarah) and Kathy Najimy (Mary) to complete the Sanderson sisters.

Production Still – Hocus Pocus (Disney)

The Birth of the Halloween Holiday Movie

Christmas family films have been a staple of cinema since the 1930s. With film transporting audiences into a world where the magic of Christmas overcomes the most negative of human emotions. With the sub-genre having given birth to Christmas classics ranging from Home Alone to Miracle on 34th Street. However, Halloween holiday movies aimed at a family audience are more challenging to identify pre-Hocus Pocus. Where pumpkin-inspired family viewing often centred on Halloween TV specials of Charlie Brown, Mickey Mouse or Looney Tunes.

However, in the movies, horror aimed at kids had been a mainstay of cinema since the 40s. With films ranging from Monster Squad (1987) to The Witches (1990) embodying the history of the kid’s horror. A history born on the popcorn covered cinema seats of the 40s and 50s theatres, where the monster matinee reigned supreme. However, it was Hocus Pocus that took the love of cult kids horror and merged it with the classic Christmas movie template—creating the first ‘real’ live-action Halloween holiday movie.

Let us explore this further by examining the Christmas movie template. One that often centres on individuals who have lost their faith in the joy and meaning of Christmas. Within Hocus Pocus, this same template applies in the character of Max; a teenager who has lost faith in Halloween. His dismissal of the traditions, stories, and fun replaced by the anger, moods, and frustration of teenage life. In turn, creating a teenage version of Scrooge. His journey back to appreciating the holiday and its traditions coming through unwanted interaction with the supernatural world.

In Hocus Pocus, the Christmas movie template is surrounded by the broader themes of mainstream monster horror. Ensuring adult audiences don’t get bored, while in turn elevating the darkness of the film into a family-friendly format. For example, the vulnerable young virgin girl at the heart of any horror becomes a virgin teenage boy hunted by a group of women; with our witches tracking him down, while dominating each man in their path. In turn, providing us with a subversion of the male power inherent in the horror genre.

Omri Katz and Vinessa Shaw in Hocus Pocus (Disney)

The Virgin and the Candle

If you have watched Hocus Pocus multiple times, the recurring theme of virginity won’t have gone unnoticed. These themes are explored in-depth by Aaron Wallace in his book ‘Hocus Pocus – In Focus‘. With the book further highlighting the complex dynamic between innocence and virginity present in the film. The witches power over the children and teenagers of Salem held within the realms of purity and innocence.

This couples with a film wrapped in coming of age themes. With Max moving to a new town, his life isolated from his friends, while his burgeoning sexuality takes flight with Alison. His relationship with his sister (Dani) changing from moody teen to protective older brother as he grows into a young man. In addition to this, it could be argued that Hocus Pocus is about the end of virginity. As the witches power over Max diminishes after he has spent ‘an innocent’ night with Alison.

Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus (Disney)

Hocus Pocus is Halloween

Hocus Pocus could have slipped into cinematic history, a doomed launch, and lacklustre reviews relegating it to the past. But it didn’t; finding its voice and audience long after its 1993 premiere. It’s saviour coming in the form of VHS rental and later DVD and TV showings. It is of course, not the first film that has found success after release, the horror classic The Wicker Man being a prime example. However, unlike other cult films that have found their voice after the cinema. Hocus Pocus is in essence, a family picture, it’s cult status bound in a mixture of holiday and horror credentials; making it a part of Halloween celebrations. Just as Home Alone and A Muppet Christmas Carol have become part of the Christmas season.

In fact, the latter example of A Muppet Christmas Carol holds many similarities to Hocus Pocus. Its box office takings mediocre at best, while its cult status emerged through TV, VHS, and DVD. On balance only earning its stripes as a Christmas classic many years after its 1992 release.

Hocus Pocus owes a considerable amount to its cast and production values in achieving its place as a holiday film classic. It’s timeless style and sublime improvised comedy lighting up the screen in every scene. At the same time, it’s subverted horror themes, and Christmas film template captures new audiences with each year that passes. Hocus Pocus has become a film passed down from parent to child, uncle to nephew, and aunt to niece. Making it the first, and best, Halloween holiday movie. Its place in the landscape of Halloween movies cemented by a unique mix of monster horror, comedy, and its riff on a Dickens classic.

Watch Hocus Pocus now on Amazon Prime Video

Aaron Wallace – ‘Hocus Pocus in Focus’ is now available from Amazon

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