Sisters, rejoice: It’s the season of the witch.
Halloween is upon us, and so too are the pointed hats, the gourds, the sexy pirate costumes and the spooky — or campy — cinema.
Few would disagree that the film, which follows three wicked (and wickedly funny) witches roused from the dead on Halloween night, has a devoted following. But with its plot holes and 33 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, why and when did this PG-movie earn cult film status?
Well, it’s complicated. For starters, the definition of cult cinema isn’t etched in stone.
“Traditionally, these were movies that were made outside the mainstream, under the radar, often by maverick filmmakers,” says Xavier Mendik, a foremost researcher in the field of cult cinema and a professor at Birmingham City University School of Media in the United Kingdom. These films often placed “marginal social, sexual or ethnic groups front and center.” Stylistically, too, cult movies tended to diverge, Mendik says, because they were often “made on a dime.” Cult audiences recognized, and revered, the uniqueness of these films.
Yet as we know, nothing stays the same. Nowadays, Mendik notes, in the era of Quentin Tarantino “and the idea of the global cult phenomenon,” cult followings can develop “even within mainstream movies. You can have a mainstream movie that is totally reread by a cult film audience in a different way.”
Film critic Andrew Lapin’s definition slightly differs. He defines a cult movie as “one that is unappreciated in its own time” and later discovered by an “unconventional audience.”
“It’s not the sort of thing where a movie is like ‘Avengers’ and it’s a big box-office success and everyone flocks to it anyway. It’s an act of discovery, and the reason why people call it a cult is you would hear about it typically through word of mouth,” Lapin says. For instance, friends might say, “‘Hey, you’ve got to check out this movie,’ and then you watch it and you love it. And so then you become inducted into the cult.”
Jennifer Eiss, author of “500 Essential Cult Movies: The Ultimate Guide,” might say we ought to stop trying to pin down a hard and fast description and just go with what we know: Spot fans with a near-unhealthy devotion to the movie, and you’ve got a cult film.
“There are people who say that cult films have to be small, undiscovered films that only have a very small but dedicated audience. And there are other people who say — I tend to go this way — how is ‘Star Wars’ not a cult film? Just because its audience is a billion people doesn’t mean that they’re not insane about it,” she says.
“Hocus Pocus,” written by Neil Cuthbert and Mick Garris and directed by Kenny Ortega, a choreographer-turned-director who went on to helm “High School Musical,” falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not an unheard-of indie — as a Disney product, it had the backing of a major studio — but it certainly wasn’t a sensation upon release. In fact, it was a flop. The film only made $39.5 million at the box office, including just $8.1 million during its opening weekend in July 1993. (Why release a spooky, seasonal film in the middle of summer? A curious decision.)
Critical reviews were scathing. Roger Ebert gave it one measly star: “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!’” he wrote. Janet Maslin at the New York Times deemed it an “unholy mess,” and Washington Post critic Desson Howe wrote, “In the not-too-distant future look for ‘Hocus Pocus’ in the rental-store bins, or as a part of a Halloween ‘Trick or Treat’ package (three bags of candies with ‘Hocus Pocus’ for $5.95).”
Yet it wasn’t all fire and brimstone; some, albeit few, critics recognized the film’s delights. “Who are these broads on brooms, the witches of Westwood?” wrote Carrie Rickey for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
If anyone has the power to bewitch, it’s Bette Midler. (Even Howe had to admit it, and did, a couple paragraphs before that rental-store bin burn: “Midler is the best reason to watch ‘Hocus Pocus,’” he wrote, calling her the “witchy center of the movie, with her Betty Boop lipstick design and that trademark, vamp-to-the-gallery, eye-batting shtick of hers.”)
She is Winifred Sanderson, a 17th-century enchantress who was hanged alongside her sisters, Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy), for sorcery. She vows to return centuries later, and so she does in 1993, when a virgin lights a certain candle on Halloween night in the Sanderson sisters’ former home and the trio are resurrected, intent on sucking the souls of children to achieve immortality. But the witches must act fast: They’ll die for good at sunrise.
Our virgin, Max (Omri Katz), spends the rest of the film trying to thwart the sisters’ plan and protect his younger sister, Dani (Thora Birch), with considerable help from Allison (Vinessa Shaw), a classmate on whom Max has a massive crush, and Binx (Sean Murray) a talking cat.
Granted, the plot doesn’t entirely cohere; the acting is occasionally ham-handed; and this kids’ movie may be too eerie for the age 6-and-under set and too goofy for preteens. And yet, somehow, it works.
“It’s one of those films that really kind of captures — I mean this is going to sound so hokey — the magic of Halloween,” Eiss says. The film takes place in Salem, Mass., the scenes are brimming with fall foliage. “You’ve got all the classic stuff,” she adds, “a black cat that talks because it’s been bewitched” and “mean, evil, witches who are a bit stupid, but also fun because of it.”
You’ve also got the nostalgia, particularly if you came of age in the ’90s.
“Hocus Pocus” hits upon “this nostalgic sweet spot for a lot of people because it came out in ’93, and so millennials remember it, and it was perched right on this edge of being creepy and spooky, but also fun and inviting,” Lapin says. Those sorts of movies “can leave an impression on you if you see them when you’re a young child and you are less discerning of quality, and then you sort of carry that nostalgia with you as you get older.”
What’s more, the movie has been “rerunning on cable TV pretty much nonstop for the past two decades,” he adds, “so you could argue that maybe Disney was forcing a cult following.”
All those factors — the memories, the evocation of fall, the fun, the passage of time — mean that for many people, those bad “Hocus Pocus” reviews don’t matter. In fact, sometimes films gain cult status precisely because they are, from a filmmaking standpoint, really rather wretched. Eiss points to “The Room” and “Troll 2,” which she calls an “objectively bad, terrible film. But people love it.” Cult films that are poorly made are often “unintentionally hilarious,” she adds, “and people like to watch them in groups. It’s almost like a bonding exercise.”
Sometimes (though this isn’t so with “Hocus Pocus”), critics pan films because they’re simply ahead of their time, too beyond the pale in a certain era. Later, those flicks can attract a cult fandom. Case in point: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which Mendik, the U.K. professor, calls the “cult movie par excellence.” Released in 1975, “Rocky Horror” was a “major studio-backed movie, but mainstream audiences weren’t ready for a campy, glam rock musical that made fun of universal monster movies and ’50s rock and roll,” Lapin said. “It’s totally insane, and yet it’s been running in midnight screenings and theaters for decades. There’s a whole culture that’s built up around it.”
Midnight screenings were once a major conduit for previously dismissed or under-the-radar films to find a devoted audience. These days, the pathways are different; the Internet, including memes, social media platforms and streaming services, are all “going to play a huge role in how people discover cult movies,” Lapin says, warning that theaters will likely be showing fewer and fewer old films. In March, Disney merged with 21st Century Fox, purchasing the company’s film and TV holdings, including major titles like “Rocky Horror,” “Alien” and “Fight Club.”
“Disney is now cracking down on allowing theater owners to screen the old movies in the Fox archive,” Lapin says, “and so that really cuts off this huge life force for cult movies, because a big part of being in a cult is you want a communal experience. You want to go to a theater where everyone in there knows all the words to the movie. Having watched ‘The Room’ at home, it’s nowhere near as fun as going to a theater with people who are just hooting and hollering and throwing spoons.”
The viewing methods may change, but cult cinema will never cease to be. Though it’s impossible to know for sure, film experts played along when asked which modern-day movies they reckon will go on to assume the cult mantle. Mendik mentioned “Rabid,” a 2019 remake of a 1977 David Cronenberg film. The new iteration was created by Canadian filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska — often known as the Twisted Twins — who have a dedicated, largely female fan base, Mendik says. The new version has been updated for today’s social and political climate, he notes, integrating contemporary debates around femininity, womanhood and masculinity.
Lapin places his bets on “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” a 2016 comedy starring Andy Samberg, which he says “was a huge flop when it came out, but people are starting to rediscover it on streaming and quoting it on social media.” He suspects that viewers will look back on the movie in a few decades to get a sense of what pop culture right now was like.
His other pick is “Vox Lux,” a dismissed 2018 movie starring Natalie Portman that he describes as “so weird and so offbeat and dark. It’s sort of a blending of pop music and terrorism.”
Honestly, though, we can’t know what will spark future generations’ imaginations and make them rabid fans. The fate of the new “Hocus Pocus” is also a mystery. Will it be any good?
Don’t get your hopes up, Lapin cautions. We’ve seen companies attempt to revive cult franchises before “to diminishing returns.”
“They tried to bring ‘Heathers’ back as a TV show; I don’t think anyone watched it,” he says. “They made a ‘Boondock Saints 2’; that’s been largely forgotten.”
How can you recapture the magic, he asks, of something you couldn’t have predicted would’ve become a cult superstar in the first place?
“It’s almost an impossible task.”