It's been more than 20 years since Hocus Pocus was released in theaters, but this movie more than holds up. The Halloween cult classic is nothing less than a camp masterpiece, built around three fabulously entertaining female antiheroes, the kind of characters we, even now, see too rarely on screen.
The Sanderson sisters—Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy)—were hanged for practicing witchcraft in 1693 in (where else?) Salem, Massachusetts. Three hundred years later, high school student Max (Omri Katz) has unintentionally brought them back to life by lighting the fabled black flame candle. Before the break of dawn on Halloween night, they must cast a deadly spell on a child, taking his or her life to extend their own.
That's right: The witches are trying to murder children (and manage to off one—in the first few minutes of a Disney movie, no less) and yet we can't help but love them.
The Sandersons are confident, competent, and funny as hell (speaking of hell: "I've been there, thank you, I found it quite lovely," Winifred replies when it's suggested she go there). Their interest in recapturing their youth is more practical than aesthetic. They want to live forever.
The sisters are single-minded in their pursuit of children to kill—a project in which I can't help but think they would have been rousingly successful if they weren't impeded by modern-day obstacles like sprinklers, vacuum cleaners, and daylight saving time. If the Sanderson sisters had arisen just 50, or even 100 years after their deaths, they probably would've claimed the lives of every kid on the entire Eastern seaboard.
Winifred, Mary, and Sarah could hardly be better at what they do, or more adaptable in the face of adversity. At the town hall Halloween party, Max grabs the mic and attempts to out the witches to the adults of Salem. Without missing a beat, Winifred thanks him for "that marvelous introduction." The sisters take the stage, bringing down the house with a glorious version of "I Put a Spell on You." Their modified lyrics enchant Salem's grownups to dance until they die (literally). The warlock version of Jason Bourne wouldn't have tackled that situation so masterfully.
Unlike a great many narratives about characters traveling from one time period to another, the Sandersons have absolutely no interest in attempting to blend in and pass unnoticed in 1993 Salem—it just so happens that they're resurrected amid the costumed madness of Halloween night, which makes their comings and goings a little easier.
This isn't a movie about fitting in; this is a movie about embracing who you really are, no matter if who you really are is strange, off-putting, and even a little bit evil.
Hocus Pocus isn't content with lumping its antagonists into a generic witch stereotype: all three sisters are vamping, irresistible lunatics (imagine a 17th-century vaudeville troupe), but with completely distinct personalities and abilities. Winifred is their ill-tempered leader, equipped with a sentient book of dark spells and lightning bolts cast out of her fingers. Mary, who tracks children by smell, is a nurturer by nature, unfailingly supportive of her sisters. Mary recognizes when Winifred feels stressed and insists the trio form a "calming circle," focusing on "soothing thoughts" like rabid bats, the Black Death, and "mummy-scorpion pie."
Ditzy, spider-eating Sarah lures children to their deaths with her siren song, but her charms are equally effective on just about every man she encounters. She's boy-crazy, yes, but boy-crazy like a black widow spider. "Hang him on a hook and let me play with him," she says menacingly of Thackery Binx (Sean Murray), the colonial boy who's transformed into a cat when he tries to save his sister from the witches' clutches. A Salem bus driver begs for Sarah's phone number, but the femme fatale declines. "Thou wouldst hate me in the morning," she tells him, and we believe her—god only knows what post-coital fate would befall this guy.
The witches' only loyalty is to each other, and despite their squabbles, their ties are unbreakable. "Why was I cursed with such idiot sisters?" Winifred asks. "Just lucky, I guess!" Sarah coos.
At some point in the distant past, Winifred's lover Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) slept with Sarah. She poisons him and sews his mouth shut as retribution, but there's no apparent damage done to the bond between the two women: sisters before misters. Later, they raise Billy from the grave to act as their mute, zombie servant, which is sort of the dream scenario for meeting your crappy ex-boyfriend again, isn't it?
As a general rule, men would be well advised not to cross the Sandersons. Two idiot teen bullies, Jay and "Ice," make the mistake of taunting the witches, asking, "How come it's always the ugly chicks that stay out late?"
"Chicks?" Winifred repeats, with a grimace.
In the very next shot, the boys are shown locked in cages that dangle precariously from the ceiling of the Sandersons' house, a punishment I'd love to see become the legal standard for street harassers.
One of the most endearing qualities of Hocus Pocus is how it values family relationships much more highly than romantic ones. Besides the witches' own spooky brand of sisterhood, the movie is centered on two platonic sibling love stories separated by centuries: one between Max and his eight-year-old sister Dani (Thora Birch) in the present and one between Binx and his sister Emily, the witches' first victim, in the past.
In the climax, Max drinks the witches' soul-stealing potion himself so they'll be forced to unhand Dani. "What a fool to give up thy life for thy sister's," Winifred hisses, ironically underscoring what's actually the theme of the entire movie.
Though he's our protagonist, Max, for the most part, is dull and sullen. Unlike him, his love interest Allison (Vinessa Shaw) actually believes in the tale of the Sanderson sisters, and she's clever enough to figure out that a ring of salt can offer protection from their spells.
Legend holds that the black flame candle can only be lit by virgin. Max invites Allison to light it first, but she declines, rolling her eyes. "No, thanks," she says, in a moment that implies that a) she's more sexually experienced than Max and isn't embarrassed to admit it, b) she's too smart to risk messing with centuries-old witch magic, or c) all of the above. Whichever answer is right, she's looking good here.
But the most compelling non-witch character is easily precocious Dani, who, it's probably worth noting, is costumed as a witch.
She's brave enough to engage the Sandersons when they first arrive ("I thought thou would never come, sisters," she proclaims in her best colonial-era accent, "It was I who brought you back!") and cheekily mocks her brother's pining for Allison. I'm not rooting for the witches to kill Dani, but I do wish they'd recruit her.
It's not that Hocus Pocus is a flawless feminist text: there's a lot of needless virgin-shaming (sorry about that, Max), Allison and Dani have very little agency compared to the male hero in the final battle, and Winifred's vain determination to punish Dani for calling her "ugly" is what ultimately leads to the witches' downfall.
But this is nevertheless a wonderful, timeless movie, one that crafts uniquely rich and lovably unlikeable female villains. It should be required Halloween viewing for any aspiring young witch.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.