Some movies are just plain comfortable. They may not be the best films in terms of acting, plot, direction or cinematography, but they nonetheless put a smile on your face every time someone brings them up. Even though you’ve seen them dozens of times, without fail, every time you see it playing on TV you automatically pick up your remote and tune in — this, despite owning multiple copies of the movie already on Blu-Ray, DVD and VHS. And for many genre fans of a certain age, Hocus Pocus falls into that category.
I’ve always reminded people that the terms “best,” “greatest” and “favorite” aren’t interchangeable. Whenever I talk about “the best” of whatever, I’m referring explicitly to the highest quality of something, the top-notch, the absolute cream of the crop. When it comes to cinema, this is the domain of your usual Criterion Collection fare — the finest works of Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Pasolini, Rossellini, Bergman and Herzog.
“Greatest: simply means the movies with the most impact — the ones with the grandest influence, the highest ambitions and the most magnanimous impact on the visual storytelling medium, regardless of objective quality. Using this metric, an outstanding documentary like Shoah can rightly be considered one of the greatest movies of all-time and so can a film like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, regardless of its lamentable politics.
But “favorite” means something entirely different. This has nothing to do with objective quality or technical scope or artistic influence and everything to do with individual taste. These are the movies that you can — and have — watched over and over again. You’ve seen them so many times you can almost quote the whole movie line-by-line. While you know for a fact they’re not pieces of art on par with the works of Fellini or Errol Morris, you’ve seen these movies far more times than you’ve seen the objectively better, legitimately great ones made by the cinematic form’s grand lions.
These movies I reference are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food — typically unrefined, usually uncomplicated, probably pretty bad for you in high enough quantities, but you keep coming back to them anyway. If stuff like Army of Shadows and Grand Illusion are the filmic equivalents of filet mignon, then one’s favorite movies are the film analogues to your preferred fast food burger or pizza pie; a lower quality product, without question, but nonetheless satisfying … and something you can return to time and time again and never walk away disappointed.
And when it comes to the horror genre, few cinematic Big Macs are as universally loved as 1993’s Hocus Pocus, a relative box office dud that, over the last 25 years, has become a seasonal cinematic rite on par with Halloween and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
The thought of going through the All Hallows Season without screening Hocus Pocus at least once is like going through Christmas without downing any eggnog, or going through Thanksgiving without LOLing at the Detroit Lions’ attempts to play football. At this point, Hocus Pocus is every bit a linchpin of Halloween as carving Jack O Lanterns, eating Boo Berry, and trying to convince your girlfriend to dress up like a goth temptress even though you and I both know that ain’t happening this 10/31 either. It’s such an ingrained part of the Halloween experience now that it’s practically impossible to think about one without thinking about the other.
The two and a half decade ascent of Hocus Pocus from Disney misfire to holiday classic is no doubt an unusual one. Considering how adored the movie is these days, it’s pretty surprising to find out the movie only made about $39 million during its theatrical run, while critics like Roger Ebert lambasted it as “a film desperately in need of self-discipline.” TV co-host Gene Siskel was even harder on the flick, referring to it as “a dreadful witches’ comedy with the only tolerable moment coming when Bette Midler presents a single song.” Even now, Hocus Pocus holds a shockingly low 30 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes — for comparison’s sake, last year’s Jigsaw, deemed by many as the absolute nadir of the Saw franchise, holds a rating six percentage points higher.
Naturally, all of this raises the question — how did Hocus Pocus, considered substandard dreck at the time of its release, become the seasonal torchbearer we all know, love and can practically recite by heart today?
Long story short? I hypothesize that the film is so beloved because, by and large, it was the first genuine horror film most of us ‘90s kids ever truly enjoyed, and for a whole hell of a lot of us, represented our gateway to the genre’s more extreme offerings.
Next to Ernest Scared Stupid, I can’t think of a single movie that personally goaded me into exploring “real” horror movies more than Hocus Pocus. Let’s face it, for a kids-targeted Disney movie, Hocus Pocus did have some pretty edgy stuff in it. You’ve got zombies getting dismembered, children in mortal peril of having their souls sucked out, a scene where a bunch of kids incinerate three people alive in a furnace, not to mention an entire plot point revolving around a love interest’s “yabos.” In hindsight, Hocus Pocus almost seems like a set of training wheels to transition us towards stuff like Halloween and Child’s Play — that first wade in the pool proving to us that we can have a lot of fun getting the wits scared out of us at the movies.
Prior to screening Hocus Pocus, I was positively terrified of even catching a glimpse of the box art for a Freddy Krueger movie. But after having such a hoot watching the Sanderson Sisters cause a ruckus, I slowly took an interest in snaking my way through the genre’s more traditional — and considerably more explicit — offerings. From there, it was a pretty smooth off-ramp to fare like Poltergeist and Critters, and within one year of watching (and loving) Hocus Pocus, I found myself glued to the tube almost every Saturday scoping out harder horror flicks such as Prison, The Pit and Shocker. By the time I graduated middle school, I’m pretty sure I was the only 14-year-old in a 50-mile radius that not only knew who Lucio Fulci was, but owned the complete Gates of Hell trilogy on video cassette.
And to think — had I never seen Hocus Pocus, I probably never would’ve learned who Dario Argento, George Romero or Frank Henenlotter were. Without hyperbole, had I not seen Hocus Pocus as a youngster, I probably never would’ve grown into the horror movie enthusiast I am today; simply put, it was the movie to pique my curiosity about all things horror cinema, and I figure there’s scores more in the millennial age bracket that can chalk up their genre fandom to that first exposure to the Sanderson Sisters, too.
While I don’t objectively consider Hocus Pocus to be a great movie — certainly, it’s nowhere close to being on par with something like The Exorcist or The Evil Dead or even a Night of the Creeps — it’s nonetheless an immensely enjoyable and immediately satisfying little picture. It’s an odd film that feels palpably dated and transcendently timeless simultaneously, a movie that evokes pangs of early ‘90s nostalgia but without necessarily feeling like a movie from a bygone era. It works as both a horror parody and as a straight genre offering equally well, and I think we can all agree that the acting is much better than in most horror flicks from the era. Watching Hocus Pocus is like eating an entire bag of miniature Reese’s cups and washing it down with a grande Pumpkin Spice Latte; hardly the best meal you can imagine, but my goodness, is it ever the delicious, indulgent holiday treat, regardless.
To mark the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, the movie is being re-released the week of Halloween in theaters all across America (and probably Canada, too, but you maple-syrup sippers will have to do the Googling on your own time.) And I, for one, can’t think of a better way to commemorate the greatest holiday of them all (yep, even better than President’s Day … I went there) than by kicking back, slurping a giant Diet Dr. Pepper and sucking down kettle corn puff after kettle corn puff while watching a 30-foot tall Kathy Najimy confuse Clark Bars for chocolate-covered severed body parts. Speaking of which, isn’t it about time Disney re-released this sucker as a special edition with all of the snipped scenes in the trailer (like the part where the witches invade a grocery store) included? Because it totally is, and we all know it.
I don’t know if there is any one attribute of Hocus Pocus that makes it such a holistically entertaining and endearing movie. But whatever the film’s je ne sais qua may be, it’s definitely stood the test of time better than most movies from a quarter century ago (hey, it’s not like you’re seeing a bunch of people clamoring for a Man’s Best Friend or Carnosaur revival, do you?) Like a warm mug of cocoa with just the right ratio of marshmallows in it, Hocus Pocus is a film that just feels cozy and comforting, even if it is, technically, a movie about devil-worshippers trying to lead an entire town of children to their deaths.
Hocus Pocus, perhaps more than any other movie, is responsible for turning me into the horror aficionado I am today. And for that, I — and practically everybody else born between the years 1980-2000 — will always cherish as it that first tantalizing taste of terror that made them lifelong genre devotees.