Hocus Pocus is a throbbing, unmitigated crime against cinema. The film underwhelms in spectacular fashion, operating on a level where it's never silly enough to get its own joke yet doesn't have enough meat on its bones to qualify as an actual horror movie. Its shambling plot — in which three children-eating witches are brought back from the dead by a frustrated teen virgin — is about procuring emergent post-pubescent sex and is peppered with vague hints of pedophilia. And even though it aims to occupy the same holiday-specific space as movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas, when it first came out in 1993 its own makers apparently saw the mediocrity oozing from its pores and released it in July so that it could be neatly forgotten by Halloween — the holiday the movie is actually about.
But despite its aggressive averageness, this grifter of a film has managed to find an allegiance of alleged humans who desire to rewatch annually it in the days surrounding Halloween.
"It’s one of our highest rated titles consistently … it’s really become kind of a foundation of the event," Megan Slaughter, ABC Family’s director of acquisitions, recently told Yahoo, explaining that 1.7 million viewers tuned in last week during a broadcast of the "film" during the network's "13 Nights of Halloween" programming event.
Hocus Pocus's success in its afterlife is a testament to nostalgia, a force so powerful it can numb the brain to flagrant awfulness and convince it to ignore taste. Perhaps it's proof that each generation will glom onto a mediocre movie (or band or song) for old times' sake, because to reminisce is human. Maybe it's indicative of a millennial craving to return to simpler days of immortal cats and the absence of texting. Regardless, Hocus Pocus is still a junk movie.
How Hocus Pocus got so big
When Hocus Pocus debuted more than 20 years ago, it made $39 million — a meager number compared with the $28 million Disney poured into its production. The movie was a disappointment, opening at fourth place behind peers like Jurassic Park (understandable) and Free Willy (a little less understandable, though it completely makes sense once you realize how bad Hocus Pocus is).
Yet somehow, it's still racking up enviable viewership numbers in repeat TV broadcasts like the one on ABC Family (soon to be Freeform). Meanwhile, it is currently the seventh most downloaded movie on iTunes and one of the top rentals on Amazon, where it sits alongside newer releases like Jurassic World and Pitch Perfect 2. And if you look at the Numbers, a site that tabulates DVD sales, it appears that Hocus Pocus really began hitting its stride in 2012, cracking the top 10 movies for DVD sales in October. From then on, there's been a sharp increase in Hocus Pocus DVD sales starting in the last week of September each year.
In 2013, Christina Cauterucci penned a piece for NPR explaining Hocus Pocus fills a nostalgic niche for millennials like herself. She and a friend have made a tradition of watching the movie each Halloween since their freshman year of college in 2006. According to Cauterucci, Hocus Pocus represents a sense of technological nostalgia:
Watching a movie repeatedly, especially 20 years after its release, is a powerful way to mark the passage of time. Allison, Dani and Max try to kill the witches by luring them into a fiery kiln with a cassette tape in a boombox. A cassette tape! In a boombox! Cutting-edge technology triumphs again!
Hocus Pocus is from a time right before the internet began booming. Instead of IMing and texting their crushes, boy and girls were still passing notes and swapping phone numbers on pieces of paper. That's familiar to millennials, even though many of them probably don't know what it's like to call someone's house just to see if they're home. And on the internet today, there's an unquenchable thirst for any glimmer of nostalgia.
Another factor in Hocus Pocus's continued popularity is the growth of the Halloween industry. Yahoo reports:
Halloween also has become more omnipresent in the culture. In 1995, Halloween spending was at about $2.5 billion, according to USA Today. This year, the National Retail Federation projects that Americans will spend $6.9 billion on Halloween, down from a 2012 high of around $8 billion. An appetite for Halloween fits in nicely, it seems, with a movie about witches starving for little children.
A perfect storm of nostalgia and an increased interest in celebrating Halloween have made Hocus Pocus a hit beyond its initial life. And there's no doubt there's some magic there, since it's outlasted exponentially better movies released the same year like The Firm and The Age of Innocence and better kids' movies like The Sandlot. But make no mistake, this is still a terrible piece of work.
Hocus Pocus is extremely sexually creepy
The tire fire that is Hocus Pocus can be traced to its hero, Max Dennison (Omri Katz).
Max is your typical randy tween — a virgin, as the film constantly reminds us — whose primary motivation is to impress Allison (Vinessa Shaw), a girl in his class. Many movies start off this way, but few include cringe-inducing scenes where the protagonist pretends a pillow is the object of his affection and spoons it while whispering, "Oh, Allison, you're so soft." There's even a split second where Max breaks the fourth wall and makes eye contact with the audience while hugging his pillow girlfriend:
Alert: Hocus Pocus is a Disney movie, and Max is dry-humping his bedding. That's alarming. But what's even stranger is that this is a movie written by adults for children. Why are scenes like this necessary? To really drive home the point that Max likes Allison? (Earlier in the movie, Max interrupts his class at school to give her his phone number; you'd think that would be enough to establish that he has feelings for her.) Things get even weirder when Dani (Birch) catches her brother in his mildly sexual pantomime and mocks him by pretending to be Allison:
Max's long con, and the producers and writers' apparent obsession with teenage willies, eventually pays off when Max and Allison snuggle. It's a scene that would be mildly charming if what we were watching wasn't trying to make us root for underage sex.
It isn't entirely Max's fault that these scenes are creepy. Hocus Pocus is obsessed with his virginity, per the fact that according to legend, only virgins can light candles that bring the witches back. But the movie repeatedly reminds us of his virgin status, and also reminds us that he acts in irrational and dumb ways because he seems so desperate to lose it.
Hocus Pocus then becomes a strange social experiment, in that there's something intensely uncomfortable and alienating about being asked to scrutinize a teen's virginity.
And Max's sexuality is actually just one example of Hocus Pocus's weird lasciviousness. The witches talk about themselves as spinsters. They try flirting with someone they think is Satan. And throughout the film, Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), gets perky and excited — like Scooby when he's offered a Scooby Snack — while talking about teenage boys in a way that's not just about stealing their life force.
There's also a scene where the witches encounter a bus driver who asks what he can do for them.
"We desire children," Winifred (Bette Midler) tells him.
"Hey, that may take me a couple of tries, but I don't think that'd be a problem," he tells her.
It's a scene that might go over child-you's head. But some years later, it's enough to shock you out of the haze of nostalgia and make you wonder what was going on in the Hocus Pocus writing room. These instances and others like it — including Sarah and Winifred sharing a zombie ex-lover — make me wonder why this children's movie is so obsessed with sex. There's a germ of an idea here that coincides with puritanism, feminism, and witchcraft, but the result probably shouldn't be a Disney film about magic.
Hocus Pocus is not a great witch movie, nor is it a particularly good Halloween one
The main problem with Hocus Pocus — as evidenced by the reviewers who cemented its 30 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — is that it never figures out what it wants to be. It's not scary enough to be a horror film, fast enough to be an adventure flick, or campy or whimsical enough to be a comedy or musical. At various points you can see the movie stretch into one of these corners and then whip back into shape; it's almost as if director Kenny Ortega had a stopwatch in hand to make sure none of the spooky, thrilling, or funny segments ever lasted long enough to really develop.
Hocus Pocus tries to do everything but ends up doing nothing well.
There isn't anything compelling about the witches or their backstory to make you root for them. I suppose you might want them to stick around because they're funny, but that undercuts the idea that they're supposed to be fearsome. What you're left with are cannibalistic sister witches (which is really sorta great, dark and compelling) reduced to a series of ad libs and facial contortions.
The performances don't help. Midler is indeed the star. But outside of one musical number ("I Put a Spell on You") she's criminally underused, flattened into a shrieking, buck-toothed stooge. And at times, it seems like she mistakes "acting like a witch" for "acting like a humanoid ferret."
Her fellow sisters, played by Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, are also allowed to shriek but are given even less to work with. Najimy is reduced to a number of dramatic sniffs (her magic power is the ability to detect children's scent), while Parker is treated like sentient cleavage, though she does get one song. Cleavage can sing, apparently.
The only redeeming aspect of Hocus Pocus is the compelling Birch, who spends the majority of the movie in a "witch" costume that reads more like "over-enthusiastic second-grade teacher with jack-o-lantern earrings." She's a delight, a cherubic ball of precociousness. But saving this film is difficult for an 11-year-old with no help.
Even with Hocus Pocus's insistent speculation of teenage virginity, Midler, Najimy, and Parker in drag, and Birch working as much as any child should, you're still somehow left with a movie that feels empty. Outside of Birch's Dani, none of the characters have a real personality.
But this might be the film's greatest strength. The film's utter vacuousness allows us to project our own feelings into this movie's vacant canyons. You remember it for the nostalgia — the way it made you feel about boomboxes and paper notes, rather than how well it did anything.
Even Halloween, the holiday the film allegedly celebrates, is treated loosely, with no real effort to establish the importance of this holiday. One of the only arguments we get about Halloween is that Max, a petulant and cynical virgin brat, thinks he's too cool for it. The film doesn't even bother to show us the counterpoint. If there's any celebration of Halloween in the film, it's our own projection.
There are better films about witches (The Witches, Practical Magic), and there are more entertaining movies about Halloween (The Nightmare Before Christmas). Hocus Pocus isn't really a successful example of either.