Ask anyone what their favourite Halloween film is and they’re likely to give wildly different answers; a slasher fan might say John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978) or even any other scare-fest; a child growing up in the 2010s may say Hotel Transylvania; anyone who says any number of macabre classics from The Addams Family to The Rocky Horror Picture Show may be met by a swarm of pedants insisting that if it doesn’t take place at Halloween then it can’t be a Halloween film. But for a lot of people of our generation, there’s always a special place reserved for the camp extravaganza of 1993’s Hocus Pocus.
Director Kenny Ortega has deservedly developed a cult following by virtue of being the patron saint of campy B-movie musicals (Newsies, Hocus Pocus, High School Musical, Descendants), and yet that devoted following wasn’t always around, as can be seen in Hocus Pocus’ dismal summer debut.
To alleviate his company’s financial woes, then Disney CEO Michael Eisner developed a baseball-inspired strategy called ‘singles and doubles’, low-risk high-reward films made on low budgets with big-name actors looking to make a comeback. One such actor was the legendary Bette Midler, who successfully revived her film career in the late 80s on the back of such films. Midler’s interest took the Hocus Pocus out of development hell, but that stroke of good fortune soon ran out.
Disney made the unthinkable decision of releasing this Halloween flick in July. Yes, July, and I assure you it’s just as ludicrous a business decision as you probably think it is. Hocus Pocus tanked at the box-office like a lamb to the slaughter, but like the satanic Sanderson sisters, death was not the end. The film grew in following despite a critical mauling as it was shown annually on the Disney channel and raked it in October after October in home video sales. So, what is it that turned what appeared to be a disaster into a cultural touchstone?
While the sets look more like those of a Disney channel original and the contemporary costumes are the epitome of the mid-90s, the abundant charm of Hocus Pocus lies primarily with the aforementioned Sanderson sisters portrayed by Midler, Disney channel legend Kathy Najimy, and a pre-fame Sarah Jessica Parker.
The Sanderson sisters are larger than life and arguably just as iconic as any of Disney’s pantheon of animated villains, just look at any Halloween party or drag bar in October and it’s a matter of seconds until you see Winifred Sanderson’s buck teeth and fiery wig. They’re each a living embodiment of camp and know exactly what kind of movie they’re in. The absurd hijinks of watching this devious trio adjust to the modern world never ceases to be entertaining.
Bette Midler has said that filming Hocus Pocus was the most fun she’s had in her whole career, and I’m not only inclined to believe her but to also suggest that it’s the most fun any actor has had on set, ever. She’s completely committed to the role and it shines through in every frame. Her electrifying rendition of ‘I put a spell on you’ will always be a banger and a Halloween staple, and for anyone born after 1990 Hocus Pocus will continue to be a source of autumnal nostalgia for many years to come.
Special thanks to our head of publicity Lilli Reuss and Instagram respondents gibby2904, isobel_bailey_, and booksandteawithe.