“Amok! Amok! Amok!” It seems impossible to imagine in an age where every Halloween is a welcomed excuse to watch Hocus Pocus on the daily, but the 1993 kids movie was by no means a smashing success. To toast the Sanderson Sisters who still enchant us twenty-some years later, we’re looking back on how Hocus Pocus went from a critically blasted box office dud to a wildly beloved cult classic.
Dreamed up by David Kirschner, Hocus Pocus was inspired by a conversation the American Tale producer had with his young daughter as they watched a neighbor’s black cat cavort through their yard. “What if,” we imagine Kirschner considering, “It wasn’t a cat at all, but a boy cursed by some seriously sinister yet silly witches!”
Kirschner made his pitch to then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, complete with Halloween decorations and candy corn. Disney drooled, but originally planned for the project to be a made-for-TV movie. However, someone at the House of Mouse clearly understood this premise was a diamond in the rough, and with the proper polish could be a gem in Walt Disney Studio’s crown.
So the hunt began for a star big enough to attract attention to this original family-friendly film. Darling diva of stage and screen Bette Midler was chosen to lead the coven as the bold and bullying Winifred. Sarah Jessica Parker, hot off of her memorable turn in Steve Martin‘s L.A. Story, was selected to play Winifred’s sultry sister Sarah. And rounding out the tricky trio was lauded comedy actress Kathy Najimy, who had just stolen scads of scenes from Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act.
As for the kid cast, Eerie, Indiana’s Omri Katz was brought in to play Max, the meddling virgin who accidentally lets the Sandersons loose on contemporary Salem, Massachusetts! Vinessa Shaw (Ray Donovan) co-starred as Max’s crush Allison, while Thora Birch–years before Now and Then and American Beauty–took the role of Max’s mischievous little sister Dani.
And fun fact: Hocus Pocus was the first major role of now iconic character actor Doug Jones, who’d go on to play memorable monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and many more movies. Prior to his audition for the role of zombie ex-boyfriend Billy Butcherson, the slender star was best “known” as the “thin clown” from Batman Returns.
The project was entrusted to director Kenny Ortega, who’d just helmed Disney movie musical Newsies, which starred future Batman, Christian Bale. But that movie tanked hard in its spring 1992 release, pulling in just $2.8 million. With a reported $15 million budget, this dismal debut made Newsies one of Disney’s lowest grossing live-action movies. And critics were no kinder. Leonard Maltin mocked the film, calling it “Howard The Paperboy,” a sneering reference to another critically panned cult classic, Howard The Duck.
We can assume Disney was shaken by the failure of Ortega’s 1992 outing. But with Hocus Pocus, the studio clearly thought they had a winner. Why else schedule a Halloween-set movie in the middle of summer?
Hocus Pocus opened on July 16, 1993, and faced off against a crowded field of family friendly films, including Rookie of the Year, Dennis the Menace, Free Willy, a re-issue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Jurassic Park. Still, Hocus Pocus cracked the top five opening weekend, wedging its $8 million debut in between Free Willy at the number five spot, and Jurassic Park at number three. But it dropped down the ranks fast, and vanished after six weeks, earning only $39 million, a disappointment for its summer position and Disney.
Hocus Pocus also faced scathing critical scorn. Roger Ebert gave it only one star, and wrote, “Of the film’s many problems, the greatest may be that all three witches are thoroughly unpleasant. They don’t have personalities; they have behavior patterns and decibel levels. A good movie inspires the audience to subconsciously ask, ‘Give me more!’ The witches in this one inspired my silent cry, ‘Get me out of here!'”
But the book wasn’t closed on this witches’ tale.
Grown-ups and critics may have rolled their eyes as Winifred, Sarah, and Mary’s brand of malevolent, manic mayhem. But the children of the ’90s gobbled their sororal shenanigans up like so much Halloween candy. That the Disney-owned ABC Family Channel (now called Freeform) began making Hocus Pocus a centerpiece of its annual 13 Nights of Halloween in the 2000s, only fed our nostalgia and collective desire for more.
The legacy of Hocus Pocus has also grown thanks to a web community that can’t get enough of cosplays, gifs and memes of the scandalous Sanderson Sisters. Between this fervent fandom and repeated TV airing, Hocus Pocus has been resurrected and redeemed, even becoming popular enough to be deemed mainstream. All this plus $21 million in DVD sales and Blu-ray sales has paved the path to a cast reunion at 20th anniversary screening, a spectacular stage show, and talk of a Midler-approved sequel!
In 2015, Midler reflected on the film’s shift from flop to sensation in a Reddit AMA, writing, “(I am) SHOCKED. I’m totally shocked. All of us are just stunned. Kathy, Sarah 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!”
And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
What’s your favorite film that found favor only after its theatrical run?
Image: Walt Disney Pictures