“It was the early days of the female revolt,” suggests Thora Birch, reflecting on the timely resonance of Halloween classic Hocus Pocus.
Okay, so admittedly director Kenny Ortega’s dark and delightful Disney tale of three witches hellbent on stealing the life force of Salem’s children couldn’t be more OTT Nineties cinema – but look back and you’ll see it’s packed with 2018 empowerment. After all, it may have been unfortunate teen virgin Max (Omri Katz) who lit the Black Flame Candle and brought Sanderson Sisters Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) back to life but it’s ten-year-old Dani (Birch) and Max’s better half Allison (Vinessa Shaw) who call the shots throughout. Twenty seven years later and Hocus Pocus couldn’t be more popular, yet back in ‘93 all its cast were concerned about was having a blast.
“I was excited because Halloween was my favourite holiday – and still is,” says Birch, recalling her route into the project alongside Katz and Shaw. “I remember there was a series of test auditions to find the perfect Max Dennison, my older brother. The creative team had their eyes set on some dude named Leo DiCaprio but that didn’t work out. Once we got all three kids locked in we were just like the triumvirate when we were on set. We were always hanging out.” For a ten-year-old budding actress, appearing in a major Disney movie was a dream come true, even if the film was uncharacteristically devilish. “I don’t think it hit me how dark it was,” she recalls. “I saw it as a romp and a lot of fun, especially my character who was full of sass and at that point in my life, I was full of sass too.”
Co-star and screen chameleon Doug Jones had similar thoughts after reading the script. As Winifred’s zombie ex, the Shape Of Water genre icon embraced the story’s darker elements when bringing his highly made-up undead alter-ego to life. “When I read about three witches using their powers to steal the life energy of children, I was a tad worried,” he smiles, “but once we got into production and all of our performances were encouraged to be goofy, it felt more like the Disney family fare that I love. I had a great time finding the floppy comedy of my zombie character Billy Butcherson, rather than the brain-eating kind you might find in Night Of The Living Dead.”
Then there were The Sanderson Sisters. As the more experienced side of the cast, you might assume there would be some division between them and film’s younger talent. You’d be wrong. “We had plenty of opportunities to work together,” says Birch on sharing a set with Midler, Parker and Najimy. “I remember Bette was particular about getting her look right with the costume. I remember meeting Winifred Sanderson for the first time – and that was a trip because I’d met Bette and then here she comes on set in all her glory and she’s got a dictionary of middle-English curse words in her hand. It was pretty inspiring.”
For Jones, the chance to work with Midler and her on-screen sisters was an equally surreal experience. “I was already a longtime fan of Bette Midler’s so the day she told me I was funny and she loved what I was doing with my role of Billy, I thought that would be a good day for a spotlight to fall on my head so I could die happy,” smiles Jones. “It was the kind of set that felt like a colourful family vacation. Everyone was so kind and generous. It was giggly and playful both on and off camera.”
Meanwhile for Birch, the opportunity to share a screen with Jones led to an enduring friendship. “Doug was fantastic. He’s incredible and does things no one else can do,” she says. “The amount of physical self-imposed torture that he puts on himself is admirable. Talk about uncomfortable, difficult work. Every time I saw him he was just one of the kids. To this day, when I see him we give each other big hugs.”
Bar a few exterior sequences shot in Salem, Massachusetts, Hocus Pocus was created in-house, utilising the sprawling practical sets that’ve become synonymous with the pre-CGI era. “Having the opportunity to visit Salem and some of the older sites where the trials actually took place, put them in perspective and tie them into a section of American history which has largely been mythologised was great,” remembers Birch. That said, once on-set it was a different ballgame. “It was like being a kid who gets to work at Disneyland. The whole set was a theme park. Every day I would find any excuse to go play at the witches’ house because the set was so phenomenal.”
Jones meanwhile had a bit of work to do before he could fully explore the immersive sets. “When you have the best artists putting makeup on you, it’s invigorating. Watching myself transform into Billy helped me find his voice and physical presence every day,” remembers Jones. “It was a remarkable design that was all one piece so the entire face and neck went on in only an hour. Add the wig, the gloved zombie hands, zombie leg sleeves and a torn period costume and I was ready to go. Everyone was so impressed with how real it looked. I was most concerned about scaring little Thora Birch but she was delighted with my look, as if I was a big plushy toy.”
While the human stars instantly gelled, there was one cast member who was a tad temperamental: Thackery Binx. You can hardly blame him, though. If your soul was transported into the body of a black cat you’d be cranky too. “That was a bit of a mad house because we had about six or seven different cats that we were working with and we also had a couple of animatronic cats and the CGI set-ups which were new,” recalls Birch. “It was the beginning of the green screen era with Binx and all the flying sequences. It was cool to be at the forefront of this exciting new technology that no one had quite mastered yet but it made the set-ups really difficult. It took a long time but it was exciting knowing we were one of the first films to play with the new toys.”
By February ‘93, Ortega had Hocus Pocus in the bag and his cast and crew had formed a bond that’d be hard to break. What’s more, they were convinced the fun they’d on set would translate to audiences. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. “The shock of it all was – after all the fun of making the movie – when it came out it wasn’t well received,” says Birch.
Jones sheds more light on this unexpected Halloween trick: “At first, I thought it would be a hit in theatres but when they released it against all the summer blockbusters in July instead of October, it didn’t perform well at the box office. I thought that was the end of it.”
However Hocus Pocus slowly gathered the recognition its cast and crew felt it deserved, thanks mainly to seasonal repeat viewings. Cut to 2018 and the film has earned that coveted spot that all kids’ films aim for yet so few actually achieve: cult film status. “About ten years later it started finding its own foothold and slowly took on the kind of cult following it has now. It’s so fun the way that fans have grabbed onto it and held on tight,” says Birch.
Jones was also surprised at its power of endurance: “It began airing on TV every Halloween and grew in popularity to the point where it’s a bigger hit now than it ever was. That did come as a slow-building, very pleasant surprise.”
For Birch, it was also a useful learning experience. “It was a lesson not to place too high expectations on things, even if you’ve enjoyed the experience. You never know what the audience is going to think.”
Hocus Pocus was an especially important experience for Jones. One that convinced him he was on the right track with the otherworldly brand of character performance that has led him to such critical acclaim. “The film has now become a happy surprise when people look down my filmography,” he smiles. However it did come with one unexpected side-effect: “The most common thing I hear personally is how I was so many people’s first screen crush when they were children. As a zombie, I did not see that reaction coming.”
For Birch on the other hand the opportunity to embody a strong role model for future generations was the gift that keeps on giving. “Looking back on it now it was an honor of me to be able to play a young girl who was full of sass. All the female characters were at the forefront of the film. The idea that a generation of young girls grew up seeing those types of characters – I’d like to think it helped shape this stronger voice we’re all celebrating now,” suggests Birch. “Dani was determined to fight and wasn’t a shrinking flower, even at such a young age. She’s like ‘how do we fry these witches!’ I like her thinking.”