Most movies that do just-okay at the box office fade slowly into the ether. They might get lucky to get some play on cable and maybe become one of those movies we all occasionally think about and say “Oh yeah, I remember liking that movie,” before going back to thinking about other things. Rare, though, and special are the movies that find not just new life on cable and video but an annual place in the viewing of countless people. Hocus Pocus is one of these movies, and after humble box office in 1993, has become one of the staples of Halloween for a whole generation.
We spoke to the film’s director, Kenny Ortega, and one of its (many, it turns out) screenwriters, Mick Garris, about how this movie came together, why it’s become as beloved as it has, and the future of Hocus Pocus and the movies.
Despite coming out in the early ’90s as a horror-themed family adventure, Hocus Pocus had a much longer and more macabre history than you might expect. Garris explains, “I wrote the first couple of drafts of the script. And it didn’t get made until eight years later and there had been like another eleven writers on it after me.” It almost wasn’t even a Disney movie, due to the involvement of the biggest producer in Hollywood. “I was writing on staff on [anthology fantasy series] Amazing Stories with Steven Spielberg producing,” Garris continued. “David Kirschner was a producer who had just done An American Tail with Amblin and Spielberg, and he had a deal at Disney, and at the time it was called Halloween House.”
“David and I met because he’d like the work I had done on Amazing Stories and that whole Spielberg connection and so he brought in this big diorama and harvest display and spooky bags of candy and masks and things like that, all in the conference room at Spielberg’s company and did this big pitch with me.” Garris remembered Spielberg was very taken with it, but not if the House of Mouse was involved. “Steven loved it,” he said, “and then he found out that Disney was involved, and Amblin and Disney were kind of competitive at the time. Because Disney was already involved, Steven decided not to go ahead with it. But that’s how I got involved, and it had its metamorphosis over the years. At the time it was called Disney’s Halloween House.”
Garris is one of the most respected writers, directors, and producers working in the horror genre, and has been for quite a long while, so naturally his initial approach to Hocus Pocus, or Disney’s Halloween House, was a bit more horrific than it became. “It was not nearly as playful and whimsical, although, it always had a sense of humor, it didn’t treat itself like a kids’ movie.” He also explained that, even though his version of the script was scarier than the finished film, it was centered on younger people. “It was about 12 year olds, rather than 16 year olds,” Garris explained, “because to me that’s a potent age for experiencing Halloween, much more so than teenagers who rather than trick or treating, are going out and stealing the 12 year olds’ candy after they’ve done the work. It was a commercial decision I think that Disney made and obviously turned out to be the right one for the movie because it is this kind of iconic, perennial movie that everybody knows and everybody’s seen and maybe that wouldn’t have been the case if it were about 12 year old protagonists.”
Despite Garris’ drafts being more geared to horror, and how the finished film went back to his basic narrative structure and included some of the “darker” elements (hello, Billy Butcherson), dark is not how it was viewed. “I approached it as a family movie,” explained director Kenny Ortega, “as a family Halloween comedy; it’s fun scary.” Having just come off of directing Disney’s Newsies, Ortega said Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg wasted no time putting him on the studio’s other hot property.
“He came right to me and said, ‘There’s a script I want you read,’ and it was Hocus Pocus,” Ortega said. “And [Katzenberg] said, ‘We have a picture deal with Bette Midler,’ and I was the assistant choreographer to Toni Basil for the movie The Rose, and so I had already had a movie experience with Bette, which was really fantastic, working with her with all of her sort of rock-and-roll staging sequences, and a few other scenes in the movie, and I was just an enormous fan, huge fan.” Garris too says the movie existing at all, eight years after it was made, had to do with Midler. “It got going because of Bette Midler,” Garris explained. “She was at a very high point of her career, and she got committed to it and I thought, ‘Oh, my, it looks like it’s gonna get made!'”
“When Jeffery mentioned Bette I thought, ‘Wow, if she wants to do this, my God, am I in!'” shared Ortega. “And he came back and had spoken with Bonnie, her manager, and they had read the script and we met, and next came Kathy and Sarah and we were on our way.” Ortega says the three actresses playing the Sanderson sisters indeed made the project what it is, owing to the studio allowing them to make the roles their own. “All of that was supported very, very much by the studio and by the writers,” Ortega related. “And you have three incredibly talented improvisational actresses with amazing musical ability, and comedic strength, and you couldn’t tie them down. You had to give them the space to play and to find these characters. There were moments, like just before they were hung at the beginning of the movie, where they did the three-part harmony, “Ah-ah-ah”, before they went into the curse. That just came in a spur of the moment. So in that respect, they really enlivened the piece. They brought it to life and beyond.”
The life beyond is something neither Garris nor Ortega could have predicted for Hocus Pocus, given the film’s initial business, but like the Sanderson Sisters reborn when a virgin lit a candle, the movie was slowly brought back after years on cable. Garris recalls realizing the movie he’d worked on in the ’80s became a 2000s phenomenon. “It probably was about ten years after the movie came out when I thought, ‘Something’s going on here.’ I think maybe it’s because Disney owns ABC and Disney Channel, and ABC Family, now Freeform, and there’s a sweetness about the movie that kind of leavens the darkness of it and kind of makes it that really rare perennial sort of thing. That’s like catching lightning in a bottle.”
“We all believed there was something there,” Ortega remembered of the film’s release, “and it just didn’t happen. So all of this of course is a grand surprise, that it has captured the imagination of so many people. They’ve adopted the movie, rather than just watched it. I know people that can’t wait for October because it’s Hocus Pocus time. And of course it’s thrilling for all of us, for Bette, for Kathy, for Sarah, for everyone associated. So it’s just made it’s way into this holiday, and it just has these legs that are just as strong as they’ve ever been, if not stronger. They’ve got a big live show that happens now every year at Disney World, where they do a live musical show at the park every October. It’s thrilling!”
Ortega also firmly believes Hocus Pocus will live again, and not just in the form of the Disney Channel remake. “I don’t think that artists should be prevented from going in and re-imagining anything,” he began. “Having said that, I would personally love to see a feature sequel one day. I know that Bette and Sarah and Kathy have all three said that they would be absolutely open and desiring to do it. I am, and I would love to come back and be in a place where I could come back and enjoy working with these three brilliant women again.”
The director hastens to add that this doesn’t mean he doesn’t think a remake would kill that idea. “Let’s see,” Ortega said. “Let’s see what they come up with. It might be fantastic. It might really be a great thing for young kids and families. And so I don’t think that by doing one that the other needs to be then forgotten, that a sequel could still be out there. Who knows?”
Keep hope alive, witches and warlocks. We might see the original three Sanderson Sisters yet.
Images: Disney/Touchstone Pictures