It's Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus - Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Eight-year-old Emily Binx died in Salem, Massachusetts, on Halloween October 31, 1693.

She had her life force drained from her by the Sanderson sisters, a coven of three evil witches, who were hanged to death on that same date for that foul deed. The trio returned 300 years later on Halloween October 31, 1993, thanks to the lighting of a black flame candle by a virgin, so they could plague the town once more for one frightening night.

That is the basic premise for the 1993 Disney movie Hocus Pocus, but there is so much more to the story that has become a cult favorite.

Director Kenny Ortega described it as "Three outlandishly wild witches - Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy - return from 17th century Salem after they are accidentally conjured up! It's a Halloween night full of zany fun and comic chaos once the tricky trio sets out to cast a spell on the town and reclaim their youth -- but first they must outwit three kids, a 300 year old zombie and a talking cat!"

The film was released in July 1993 to take advantage of the young audience that was off on summer vacation from school and also so it wouldn't compete with the Halloween-themed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) that Disney was releasing during the upcoming holiday season.

While the film made a modest profit, it received mixed reviews and continues to do so today. On its initial release, Entertainment Weekly called Hocus Pocus "acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they're Bette Midler fans. In which case it's depressing as hell." Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that it was like "attending a party you weren't invited to, and where you don't know anybody, and they're all in on a joke but won't explain it to you." He gave the film one star.

The original concept for the film focused more on the the three witches than on the children.

Actress Bette Midler, who portrayed Winifred Sanderson, said in 2013, "We made [Hocus Pocus] before the tidal wave of Halloween happened. In the old days, it was 'Oh, Halloween is Halloween. And the kids will go out.' But now it's huge. The kids, grown-ups, everybody takes part in it.

"And this movie was kind of the beginning of the wave. 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!"

"It didn't perform very well at the box office," stated Doug Jones who was Billy the Zombie. " So, I thought that was the end of it. Then when it began airing on TV every Halloween and grew in popularity to the point where it's a bigger hit of a movie now 25 years later than it ever was, that did come in a slow-building, very pleasant surprise."

The film was the brainchild of David Kirschner.

Kirschner was the producer of all the films in the Child's Play film series featuring the Chucky doll. He also developed the animated feature An American Tail where he established a good relationship with filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

The Hocus Pocus story started as a bedtime story Kirschner would tell his two young daughters based on the neighbor's black cat who would sometimes stray on to their back porch.

In addition, when he was younger, Kirschner had found and taken in a black cat and named it "Inks," because of its inky black coloring, which helped inspire the name "Binx" for the boy in the story who had been changed into a cat by witches.

Binx was actually played by nine different black cats that each had a certain skill like jumping on command or moving a paw. Treats and clickers were used every time a new cat was brought out to the set and it took time for each of the cats to get adjusted to the children. In addition, there were floppy cats, pose-able stand-in cats, and inflatable versions of Binx.

"There were a number of live cats," actress Thora Birch, who played the youngest girl Dani, remembered, "animatronic cats [too] - the thing with the cat was a toss-up. You never knew what would happen."

Rhythm and Hues, who created the CGI Binx, went to great lengths to make sure that the facial features were authentic to an actual cat. However, Disney found the teeth a little too realistic and scary. To make the cat appear friendlier, Rhythm and Hues had to make the fangs smaller and less pointed. The acrylic teeth on the animatronics cat also had to be filed down which was difficult because of its small mouth.

In addition to voicing Binx when he was 18-years-old, actor Jason Marsden played Eric's best friend on Boy Meets World, D.J.'s rich boyfriend on Full House, and J.T.'s friend on Step By Step. He also voiced Goofy's son Max in A Goofy Movie.

He had auditioned for the role in the film of Max Dennison that went to Omri Katz, although a young Leonardo DiCaprio was brought in for that role but turned it down to do another film, What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). In later years, DiCaprio said he had no regrets about making that decision.

Marsden actually hung out on the set while it was filming because he was working on a television series that was in production nearby. He was not cast as the voice of Binx until after the film finishing shooting, doing two or three days in ADR sessions dubbing the dialog.

"Sean Murray, who plays the human version of Thackery Binx in the film, was the voice first. They were using him first and animating his performance," Marsden told writer Kevin Fallon in 2017.

"Sean has a very contemporary sound. After it was all said and done, they—and I'm sure they worked with him on this—after the movie evolved they thought it would be more realistic, since the witches come from this time period, that Binx should also have an affected accent. Not only did I have to do Binx, I had to lip sync Sean as well for consistency. (Laughs.) I'm sure he loved that when he saw the final film."

Kirschner first turned the legend of the Sanderson Sisters into a short story for Muppet Magazine and then decided to develop his Halloween-themed tale into a full-fledged film script.

During the original pitch for Disney in 1984, Kirschner came a half hour early and had a Halloween decorated grocery bag filled with about 2 pounds of candy corn that he tore open to create a serpent-like shape of the treats on the conference table "so that the whole room smelled like Halloween".

He also hung props on the wall like child-drawn pictures of black cats and suspended from the ceiling two brooms and a Hoover stand-up vacuum cleaner, the mode of transportation for the Sanderson Sisters in modern times, and darkened the room.

The executives loved the pitch and gave Kirschner approval to develop the idea as an original movie for the newly launched Disney Channel that was desperately in need of material.

Mick Garris, who had already produced and directed several documentaries about horror films, was working as a story editor and writer on the Amazing Stories television series being produced by Spielberg. Because of Kirschner's previous working relationship with Spielberg, he checked out some of Garris' work and the two hit it off immediately.

"I loved the idea of the true story of Salem witches being brought into our world especially after visiting the location and seeing it all first hand," remembered Garris when interviewed by writer Yohana Desta in 2014. "Disney was quite eager for the film! I was attracted to the essence of David#39;s idea as well as bringing the dark side of Disney to life. I mean we are talking about a little dead girl and a boy consigned to live for centuries as a cat. Setting magic in the real world has always been a theme that I'm attracted to.

"One thing I love doing over the Halloween season, and I got this from going there on a location scout for the movie was to go to Salem [Massachusetts] for this huge 11-day celebration that climaxes with a candlelight vigil to gallows hill, where the Salem witches were put to death. It's an amazing event, and I went there five or six years in a row after I went there to research the movie.

"I was the first writer when it was going to be called Disney's Halloween House, and there were several—almost a dozen—on the project after me. But they ended up going with most of my material, hence the way the credits were doled out. Now every woman or girl that I meet, from about five years old to 50 tells me it's their favorite movie. It definitely hit a nerve in the female psyche."

The movie's first draft was much darker.

"What I had written originally was about 12-year-olds," Garris told another writer. "The kids being younger and in more jeopardy was certainly something more explicitly frightening. Later versions made two of the children older to attract a different demographic to sell more tickets and the film became more broadly comic. My version centered on the fears a younger, less mature kid would face like confronting death and being in a graveyard."

However, that first script did include having Billy the Zombie's head knocked off. Actress Karyn Malchus performed as the Headless Billy because she was short enough so that the upper torso still was the same height as Doug Jones.

As makeup supervisor Tony Gardner remembered, "She wore this dummy head on top of a skullcap strapped to her own head, while looking through the lace of Billy's collar. The fake head had magnets mounted in the base of the neck, and there were corresponding magnets inside the neck stump that Karyn wore on her head.

"The tree branch was metal covered in foam, and the only protection Karyn's real face had was just the fiberglass skullcap covering her face from the nose up, so there was a lot of rehearsal to make sure that Karyn's false head was at exactly the right height for the branch to take Billy's head off and not her own."

Kirschner and Garris approached Spielberg to consider being involved perhaps as the director.

"He loved it until he found out that Disney was already involved," Garris says. "At that time, Disney and Amblin were very competitive in the family-film market, so neither of them wanted to be in business with the other. [But] it was very close to being a project with Steven Spielberg."

The intent was to ask actress Cloris Leachman to play the main witch. Singer Bette Midler had already made several films for Disney's Touchstone Pictures including Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People, and Outrageous Fortune, as well as voicing Georgette the poodle in the Disney animated feature Oliver & Company (1988).

When she expressed interest in the script Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg saw it as an opportunity to upgrade the project to a theatrical release. Midler stated in 2008 that this was her favorite of all of her films with Oliver & Company being another favorite. The title was changed to Hocus Pocus when it became a theatrical project.

Midler told television host Katie Couric, "I'd be happy playing [Winifred] for the rest of my life. She is completely demented. She is quite evil but she can be funny but she doesn't know how funny she is.

"It was the first time I had been part of an acting trio and I thought it was just so much fun. We laughed the whole time. We flew. And we got to wear crazy noses and fake teeth. I kept my false teeth. And we just had the best time."

Since at least 1620 A.D., the phrase "hocus pocus" has been used as an incantation by magicians when performing tricks in a similar manner to using the phrase "abracadabra." Initially, magicians hoped that such exotic sounding phrases might suggest to the audience that mysterious forces were at work while at the same time offering a moment of brief distraction from what they were actually doing.

Actress Rosie O'Donnell was originally offered the role of Mary Sanderson, but turned it down because she did not want to be a scary witch that killed children.

The role was offered to actress Kathy Najimy who had just appeared in Touchstone's Sister Act (1992). At first, she was hesitant to accept because she did not want to offend real witches by playing a negative stereotype. She urged the writers to include some mention of white witches who do protection.

However, since she was a longtime, huge Bette Midler fan, almost a borderline stalker, the opportunity to be able to work with the singer was more than enough to convince her and during the filming she revealed her 15-year long obsession to Midler.

"(The film) seems scarier on paper," Najimy stated. "But when you get me and Sarah and Bette in our characters and in our costumes, with the jokes everywhere and running around and bumping into each other, the sucking the lives out of kids becomes so secondary that it's not scary anymore. You usually don't rehearse much for a film. You just rehearse that day. But we rehearsed for a month because there was flying and dancing and singing."

Hocus Pocus' choreographer Peggy Holmes didn't just work with the three actresses on the famous I Put A Spell On You dance number, she also instructed the witches on how to fly.

Najimy explained, "(Peggy went) driving with Bette and Sarah and I individually around the Disney back lot, and from our driving she developed how we flew. So Sarah was like very front forward so she would hold it. [She demonstrates miming a broom held closely to her chest] I was like very 10-and-2 while I was driving, so she was like. 'That's how you'll fly'."

Stunt coordinator Terry Frazee instructed the stars on how to handle the wire rigs that had them hanging 30 feet off the ground, as well as the teeter rig (for close-ups) that would allow the Sanderson Sisters to swoop down on the children. Elaborate rod puppets were also used for long shots.

"I liked making the movie and I loved flying," said Sarah Jessica Parker who played Sarah Sanderson. "It was old fashion wires and harnesses. It's joyful. It's also a dance, and there's a lot of trying to be graceful while not being sure you weren't going to be turned upside down. I realized I could fit an entire New York Times newspaper up the back of the corset, and I found that the harness was comfortable, so I would just sit up there and read the Times while people took their breaks or changed the camera or sometimes went to lunch."

Mary's signature crooked smile was something Najimy discovered for herself during rehearsals. It was during one day in rehearsal that it was decided that Mary should be like a bloodhound to sniff out children. Early make-up concepts had her prosthetic nose longer and more snout-like to resemble a dog.

Make-up supervisor Tony Gardner said that Kevin Haney designed Mary Sanderson so that her head was like a pumpkin with her hair acting as the twisted stem.

Najimy revealed that the movie was "cut and edited completely differently than it was filmed. There are as many as five huge scenes with the witches that never made the movie because Disney wanted the film more family friendly and so emphasized the kids more than the witches. One scene I love that was cut is Mary is set loose in a grocery store and begins snacking. She goes crazy when she sees toilet paper with a baby's face on it and Winifred has to drag her out. My dog Al Finney was in both Sister Act and Hocus Pocus. He is the winged dog who chases the witches out of 'Satan's' supposed suburban home."

Other missing scenes include kids attempting to push the witches into a pool and the witches being surrounded by trick-or-treaters holding out their hands.

Sarah Jessica Parker, while researching her family history for the show Who Do You Think You Are? (2004), discovered that her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, was arrested in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s for committing "sundry acts of witchcraft" and choking a neighbor to death.

Parker felt that her character was "the most fundamentally evil of all of them. She is so not bright, not calculating, that it is her innate nature to be evil. For her older sisters it is a learned thing. Yet, she is still somewhat seductive. She's just awful but I love her. There was very little about our characters beyond the script itself so it gave me my first chance to really create a character like finding the voice and physical stuff. They wanted me to do a Marilyn (Monroe) voice but I found that boring so I came up with something like a small, 4-year old boy on helium."

Ortega recalled that on his first day on the set: "What I really, really remember [is] observing Bette and Kathy and Sarah really finding their characters, in the mirror with makeup, hair, prosthetics, and I just burst out laughing. Looking at one another, you saw this chemistry come into play, and I knew we were going to have a lot of fun."

Principal photography began on October 12, 1992. The film is set in Salem, Massachusetts, but most of it was shot on sound stages in Burbank, California, including the big Soundstage 2 at the Disney Studio.

Some of the daytime scenes were filmed in Salem and Marblehead, Massachusetts, during two weeks of filming with principal cast including the boy Thackery going through the woods.

The elementary school is a Salem school, and the Town Hall where the big party is thrown is also local to Salem, too. Allison's home is the Ropes Mansion, which is now a museum and a well-known haunted tourist stop.

Of course, not everything outside was shot in Salem. The famous fountain from the opening of the television series Friends can be seen behind and to the right of Dani and Allison while they're celebrating on the lawn the deaths of the witches.

Production was completed on February 10, 1993.

One final Halloween treat for MousePlanet Readers: One important "extra" that is missing from the DVD/BluRay releases of the film is that in 1994, the Discovery Channel produced a 20-minute Movie Magic episode (Episode 10 titled Cinematic Flight) that showed how the Sanderson Sisters flew in the film.

Next week in Part Two that has already been written, I spend the entire column focusing on the character of Billy the Zombie and reveal some little known secrets.