Twenty-five years ago, the three shrieking witches of “Hocus Pocus” flew across the big screen and, at least for a time, promptly out of everyone’s periphery.
Resurrected from the dead 300 years after they were hanged, the Sanderson sisters — Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy — set out on a mission to suck the life out of children on Halloween night so they could be young again. But for all its wackiness, the July 1993 movie seemed to be stuck in a kind of Halloween-flick purgatory: too campy for a horror film, too creepy for a family film.
Critics hated it.
Robert Ebert, giving it one star, described “Hocus Pocus” as one giant inside joke that nobody will explain to you, so you “stare indifferently at the screen” and don’t know what’s so funny. The Washington Post’s Desson Howe described it as a “future videotape disguised as a movie,” predicting that in the near future you would find it buried in the rental-store bins or as a $5.95 deal if purchased with three bags of Halloween candy.
The Baltimore Sun’s Stephen Hunter went full Shakespeare: “As Shakespeare would have certainly written if he’d been on the movie beat, ‘Double, double toil and trouble, movie stink and critic bubble/’Hocus Pocus’ has no rhyme, has no reason/and is . . . out of season.' "
But sometime between then and now, “Hocus Pocus” seemingly came back from the dead — reincarnated as a beloved cult classic soaked in ’90s nostalgia that, rather than rotting in rental-store bins, somehow found a spot in the millennial canon of annual required watching.
The movie marked its 25th anniversary on Saturday with a 90-minute special on Freeform, filmed before an audience at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. It featured a performance of Midler’s rendition of “I Put a Spell on You,” a costume contest and commentary about the making of the film from original cast members. Parker said what she remembered most was “how awful we were as characters,” set on “destroying children.” Najimy recited her “I smell children” line to loud applause. Midler said that above all she liked flying on a broomstick the most, hoisted in the air by wires.
For a movie that bombed at the box office, it was a celebration that even the cast members considered unlikely.
“I mean, we had no idea at the time,” Najimy said, speaking to fans from the stage. “You never know which ones are going to fly away and disappear into the night like broomsticks and which ones are going to magically seep into the zeitgeist and the veins of y’all forever.”
“Hocus Pocus” started as a bedtime story the movie’s producer and co-writer, David Kirschner, used to tell his daughters in the ’80s, he said during the special. He originally envisioned it being much scarier, titled “Halloween House,” but the movie was intended to appeal to families, requiring a certain amount of comedy. The result: a bucktoothed, wild-haired Midler as Winifred, a child-sniffing, bumbling Najimy as Mary and a dimwitted, boy-crazy Parker as Sarah, who enlist the help of a zombie named Billy and their spell book with one eye on their mission to kidnap kids. They spend most of their time pursuing a boy named Max, his little sister Dani and Max’s teenage crush after Max, a virgin, lights the cursed candle that brings the Sanderson sisters back to life. A discomfiting number of jokes about teenage virginity ensue.
Kirschner, during the special, said there was simply “confusion” about how to market the movie at the time. It didn’t help that it was up against “Jurassic Park” and “Free Willy” that summer. The film raked in $39 million at the box office but had cost $28 million to make.
“Looking back to 1993, critics just really didn’t know what to make of ‘Hocus Pocus,’” Aaron Wallace, author of “Hocus Pocus in Focus: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Disney’s Halloween Classic‚” told The Washington Post. “You had a child die on-screen in the first 10 minutes, and then you have adults obsessing over a teenager’s virginity for every 10 minutes after that. And then in the middle of it, Bette Midler stops to sing a song. I think critics were just flummoxed. But as it happens, I think it’s that blend of spooky meets kooky that imprinted on a young generation.”
The nostalgia factor, Wallace said, has been the film’s most obvious lifeblood. The movie appeared to gain more popularity than ever in the mid-2000s, when it began to air regularly every fall. ABC Family’s “13 Nights of Halloween” (now Freeform’s “31 Nights of Halloween,") “played an incalculable role” in the film’s reemergence, Wallace said, as kids of the ’90s began rediscovering the film as teenagers or adults with a newfound appreciation.
By 2009, “Hocus Pocus” had shattered the program’s viewing record with 2.5 million viewers, TV by the Numbers reported then. The fervor continued as it crept its way into the top 10 or 20 DVD and Blu-ray sales every year thereafter when the calendar turned to fall. In his book, Wallace reports that home video sales for “Hocus Pocus” totaled more than $8 million from 2007 to 2013, an “incredible sum for a catalogue title,” he wrote.
“It’s one of our highest rated titles consistently,” Megan Slaughter, ABC Family’s director of acquisitions, told Yahoo Entertainment in 2015, referring to its popularity on “13 Nights of Halloween.” “It’s really become a kind of foundation of the event.”
There are now memes, costumes, merchandise, trivia nights and even drinking games for “Hocus Pocus” watch nights. A remake, which will not feature the original cast, is in the works, the Disney Channel announced last fall.
In 2014, Midler said she was “SHOCKED... totally shocked” at the “cult status” the movie had attained in a Reddit “ask me anything” thread. She would later pull out her Winifred costume while on tour in 2015 to perform “I Put a Spell on You,” which in the movie she sings show-tune style on stage at a high school gymnasium, hoping the crowd will “dance until you die.”
“All of us are just stunned,” she wrote at the time. “Kathy, Jessica and I have talked about it. We are totally thrilled to death. Because when it came out, it laid a tiny little bit of an egg, so we didn’t expect much. And now look at it! OCTOBER is HOCUS POCUS MONTH!”
It is scheduled to air 31 times this October on Freeform, culminating in a “Hocus Pocus Marathon” on Halloween night.
“We will never forget [Hocus Pocus],” Najimy said Saturday. “Mainly because you won’t let us.”