Hocus Pocus – A retrospective look at a holiday classic

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 meager £630,018 on its Halloween week debut. Slowly slipping from the 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 film that cleverly mixed kid’s horror with a classic Christmas film template. Creating the first real 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. Coupled with a Halloween theme that tied to the holiday’s growing commercial popularity in the USA. Under the early title of ‘Halloween House,’ the script was offered to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The potential vision bouncing from a TV movie to a possible feature film. Spielberg however, declined with the level of 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 reunited DiCaprio with the already cast Thora Birch. Both having worked alongside each other 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 stared in Joe Dante’s cult TV series Eerie Indiana and just finished shooting the underrated Dante film 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 a range of Christmas classics 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 family viewing options often centred on Halloween TV specials of Charlie Brown, Mickey Mouse or Looney Tunes. However, in movies horror aimed at kids had been a mainstay of cinema since the 50s. With films ranging from Monster Squad (1987) to The Witches (1990) continuing to embody the kid’s horror genre. However, it was Hocus Pocus that took 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 centers on individuals who have lost faith in the joy and meaning of Christmas. A core theme of the father of all festive stories A Christmas Carol. 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.

This Christmas movie template is cleverly surrounded by the wider themes found in mainstream horror. Ensuring adult audiences don’t get bored, while in turn elevating the darkness of each theme 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. The witches hunting him dominating each man in their path. A clear subversion of male power over women inherent in many classic movies of the horror genre. While the monsters like ‘Billy the Zombie’ are actually inherently good. Just as the black cat is also there to support and guide rather than curse or scare.

This heady mix of horror and Christmas makes Hocus Pocus groundbreaking in its long term effect on Halloween inspired cinema. Creating the first true Halloween holiday film, its important place, and innovation only growing as the Halloween holiday grew in public recognition.

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 passed you by. This is explored in depth in the Aaron Wallace book ‘Hocus Pocus – In Focus‘ where Wallace points out the interesting dynamic between the film’s concept of innocence versus virginity. The witches only really having power over children or teenagers who are virgins. A theme that is embedded in horror new and old, as virginity is often seen as being the very conduit of innocence.

This couples with a film wrapped in coming of age themes. With Max moving to a new town, his life becoming isolated from his friends, while his burgeoning sexuality takes flight with Alison. His relationship with his sister (Dani) changing from moody to protective older brother as he grows into a young man. Creating a tale that embodies the themes and traits that make coming of age films connect with audiences of all ages in a deeper way than many other genres.

Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus (Disney)

Hocus Pocus is Halloween

Hocus Pocus could have slipped into cinematic history, a doomed premiere, and lacklustre reviews marking its card forever. But it didn’t, in fact, it found 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 been rescued after its release by new audiences, the horror classic The Wicker Man being a prime example. However, unlike other cult films that have found their voice after cinematic release. Hocus Pocus is in essence a family picture, it’s cult status bound to a mixture of both holiday and horror credentials. The film itself becoming a part of Halloween, in a similar way to Home Alone or A Muppet Christmas Carol in December.

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. Only becoming a part of the Christmas experience in the years post its 1992 release.

Hocus Pocus owes a huge 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. While it’s subverted horror themes and Christmas film template capture 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. The first and best Halloween holiday movie, that has become embedded into October as much as costumes and pumpkins. Its place in the landscape of holiday film classics cemented by the unique mix of monster horror, comedy, and a Halloween riff on classic Dickens.

Watch Hocus Pocus now on Amazon Prime Video

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