The 1990s was a decade rife with witch related pop culture, particularly young and trendy witches. Willow from Buffy came to the small screen in 1996 whilst on the silver screen, The Craft shed new light on the plight of the outcasts. Revenge is a dish best served by magic, it seemed.
Griffin Dunne’s Practical Magic was released in the UK in 1998 and, looking at the appetite for spunky young witches, should have been well received. With two leading women at its helm – Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman – plus an exciting story about witches, magic, curses and defeating an abusive boyfriend, what could go wrong? A lot, apparently. The film was a box office flop (a $60 million budget yielded just $46 million domestically) and to this day it remains at a meagre 20% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Witches Are Cool Now
With the recent revival of witchcraft and the spiritual realm back onto our screens in the form of Riverdale, Stranger Things, and the re-invented Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – now seems like exactly the right time to look back on Practical Magic and see if it may have been judged too harshly. With Bullock and Kidman leading and its focus on sisterhood – Practical Magic seems poised to make a comeback. It’s about time too.
Setting the scene in the 1600s, the prologue depicts young witch Maria Owens on the brink of being killed for witchcraft. On escaping her hanging, she is exiled to a small island where she gives birth to a baby girl. Jilted and betrayed by her lover, Maria curses the Owens family bloodline – any man who falls in love with an Owens woman will die.
Enter present day young sisters Gillian (Nicole Kidman) and Sally (Sandra Bullock), two descendants of Maria Owens. In the present day, before the opening credits are even finished, Gillian and Sally lose their father to the curse (and their mother shortly after of ‘heartbreak’). They move in with their Aunts: Frances and Jet (Stockard Channing and Dianne West), two wickedly funny witches who enjoy a life filled with magic.
Those who found Netflix’s Sabrina too patriarchal in its portrayal of the Witches Council (and of witchcraft in general), Practical Magic offers a far more female-oriented view of the magical world. Frances and Jet, the Aunts, are both single, older women who have seemingly rejected the idea of any kind of heteronormativity by living together instead of romantic partners.
This home, despite its unorthodox set-up, is presented as a safe haven and not a threat to normal life. We watch as Sally and Gillian have happy childhoods growing up with their Aunts, despite their parents passing. Chocolate brownies for breakfast and spells before lunchtime are the order of choice in the Owen’s household and it seems to turn out well rounded, happy children who are not disadvantaged from not having grown up in a two-parent house.
A New Family Dynamic
The all-female living situation is repeated later in the film after Sally’s own husband succumbs to the curse and is killed. She brings her two young children (who clearly resemble herself and Gillian) to live in the Aunt’s house. The curse negates the need for men in the lives of the Owen women, regardless of how much they desire them.
Witches have historically been painted as a threat to normality and family life throughout the history of cinema. Horror films like The Blair Witch Project, The Conjuring and Season of the Witch depict them as vengeful outcasts seeking destruction. Even within children’s films (particularly fairy-tales, witches and women who use magic are seen as predatory and something to be avoided (The Witches, Snow White, Hocus Pocus). Practical Magic is one of few films which actively associates witches with goodness, kindness, and light, rather than darkness.
The way in which Sally and Gillian are dressed and the set-dressing of the Owens household confirms this idea of wholesomeness. Though Gillian is occasionally seen in a gothic style slip, this style is worn when she is at her lowest and trapped in an abusive relationship with boyfriend Angelo.
Sally, and Gillian later on, are often shown in pastel colour clothing – jeans, shirts and summer dresses. Aunt Jet and Aunt Frances dress in a slightly more conservative fashion — high necked, long-sleeved Victorian-style dresses — but even these are made out of lighter colours and shades which feel warm and inviting. The house itself is surrounded by a luscious green yard, abundant with flowers and trees. There is life here and it is a happy one.
Put The Lime in the Coconut
Possibly the most memorable scene in Practical Magic involves Frances, Jet, Sally, and Gillian drinking midnight margaritas and dancing around the kitchen to Harry Nilsson‘s ‘Coconut’. Their laughter and joy radiates from the screen, the camera swaying this way and that to mirror their tipsy, almost delirious state. It’s a scene of utter happiness and freedom — four adult women enjoying themselves despite (or perhaps because of) their status as outcasts in their community and the wretched curse that has been put upon on them. It only brings them closer together, because here sisterhood really means sisterhood. Nilsson’s song is perfectly pitched in this scene — the lyrics mirror the idea of simple unadulterated fun.
The use of pop music, in general, is another way in which Practical Magic crosses from the spiritual world to the real one. The moment that Sally first kisses her husband is sound-tracked by Faith Hill’s ‘This Kiss’ — a scene which sees Sally running down the street to embrace her lover which wouldn’t be out of place in a straight romance movie.
Yet, it’s later revealed that this moment is just as concocted as those films — the Aunts put a spell on Sally to help her fall in love thinking it would help her. The film deftly deflects moments which would otherwise be celebrated in films – instead of fate and destiny, the Aunts are the screenwriters dictating Sally’s journey. Although it ends in heartbreak for her, it reiterates that there is no ‘meant to be’. We all make our own destinies.
This combination of contemporary pop-culture, a safe haven, and the bonds of sisterhood are an important set up to the climax of the film as Gillian and Sally use their magic to (re)kill Angelov (Goran Visnjic). He’s killed twice throughout the film, both times by some form of magic (the first time is by poisoning via belladonna plant extract, but it’s implied that the sisters only know about this plant from their education in witchcraft). Magic is the first and only defence against a man who, for all intents and purposes, is evil incarnate.
The theme of sisterhood goes beyond just the Owens family and reaches into the hearts of the suburban mothers who previously derided and insulted both Sally and Gillian. In true mum fashion, Gillian utilises the school phone tree to round up the other mothers and enlists them to assist with exorcising Jimmy Angelov’s demon reincarnation from Gillian’s body. Unlike the cliques of Sabrina or The Craft, Practical Magic invites all who want to learn. There is no hierarchy – the magic of Practical Magic is inclusive of everyone. After all ‘there’s a little witch in all of us’.
Give Practical Magic a Second Chance!
Watching the film today, it certainly feels like Practical Magic was sorely misunderstood on its release. Instead of relying on witchy stereotypes or hegemonic tropes, Practical Magic invites us to indulge in the idea of creating our own future. After all, Sally quite literally conjures up her own perfect partner in the form of Aidan Quinn’s Gary Hallet. It may be quirky, bizarre and in some places very clunky, but Practical Magic deserves a second chance. In today’s world, it is little wonder that young women are shifting their gaze back to witchcraft and magic and hopefully this means Practical Magic will live on for the next generation of young witches to enjoy, too.