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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The rise of <em>Practical Magic </em>as a spooky season classic

The rise of Practical Magic as a spooky season classic

Graphic: Libby McGuire, Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The ’90s were a big time for witches. The Craft and Charmed found loyal teen audiences as Sabrina The Teenage Witch, Hocus Pocus, and Halloweentown enchanted the younger set. Kiki’s Delivery Service landed Stateside, Willow went Wiccan on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Hermione Granger made her literary debut. Amid that backdrop, Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman signed on to play witchy sisters in 1998’s Practical Magic, an adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s popular 1995 novel of the same name. Practical Magic is now considered part of the Halloween season pantheon—especially for those who prefer something spooky rather than scary this time of year. When it first premiered, however, it failed to make back its budget and absolutely baffled critics.

Entertainment Weekly called Practical Magic “a witch comedy so slapdash, plodding, and muddled it seems to have had a hex put on it.” Roger Ebert felt it was “too scary for children and too childish for adults,” while Empire diagnosed it as “a chick movie with a multiple personality disorder.” For those expecting a lighthearted rom-com, Practical Magic’s jaunts into domestic abuse and murder felt jarringly dark. And for those expecting a subversive commentary on the female experience, the film’s earnest girlishness felt insultingly twee. Practical Magic is a big-budget studio comedy that doesn’t follow any of the conventional rules for how that kind of film usually operates, either tonally or narratively. Over the years, however, that weirdness has come to be seen as a strength, rather than a flaw—particularly for the generation of women who grew up obsessively watching it on cable and VHS. Practical Magic’s odd, episodic structure definitely plays better on a rewatch than a first viewing.

You could also blame its poor initial reception on a curse. Director Griffin Dunne hired a witch consultant who helped him realize that witchcraft is “not really about spells and spell books and all that—it’s about a legacy being passed from one generation to another.” Although Dunne didn’t have a particular interest in the supernatural, he grew up around three generations of strong women and connected to that element of the story. Unfortunately, when payment negotiations with the witch consultant went south, she cursed the project. The strange experience inspired Dunne to give one character the line, “Curses only have power when you believe them.” Just to be safe, he went ahead and held an exorcism, too.

Practical Magic also bears the hallmarks of a film that had one too many cooks in the kitchen. It has three credited screenwriters, including Batman & Robin scribe Akiva Goldsman and future Definitely, Maybe helmer Adam Brooks. The third screenwriter, Robin Swicord, was becoming a go-to choice for female-focused literary adaptations. Her scripts for 1994’s Little Women and 1996’s Matilda share a lot of the same DNA that Practical Magic deploys to even kookier effect.

Practical Magic isn’t exactly a romantic comedy, although it is a film that centers on the romantic lives of women. Thanks to an ancestral curse, the Owens women are doomed to have the men they love die. Sisters Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) Owens develop wildly divergent views on love and relationships after their father falls victim to the curse and their mother dies of a broken heart. Wild child Gillian can’t wait to experience the drama of romance herself, while demure Sally is terrified of the potential for pain. As Gillian escapes to the life of a carefree L.A. party girl, Sally sees her worst fears come to pass when the curse kills her husband and leaves her as the single mom of two young daughters.

But that’s really just the prologue to a story that’s eventually about Sally and Gillian killing, reviving, and then re-killing Gillian’s abusive boyfriend, Jimmy Angelov (Goran Višnjić). Although Practical Magic was marketed as Bewitched meets While You Were Sleeping, in practice, it’s more like The Addams Family meets Thelma & Louise. As Jimmy’s undead spirit starts to haunt the sisters, they’re also pursued by investigator Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn), who develops a mystical romantic connection with Sally. Sally has to decide what she’s willing to risk for love and, more importantly, what she’s willing to risk to save her sister—a central conflict that doesn’t really kick in until nearly halfway through the movie.

As Katharine Trendacosta put it in a 2015 retrospective, “Instead of everything hinging on plot, everything in this movie hinges on feel.” Practical Magic luxuriates in what we’d now call “cottagecore”—a cozy, homey, nature-filled aesthetic that mirrors the film’s low-key take on witchcraft. The Owens’ magical abilities manifest in casual, homeopathic ways. Sally owns a botanical shop where she sells homemade balms and shampoos, which perhaps explains why the characters in this film have some of the most enviable hair in all of cinema history. Practical Magic also features a Victorian home so glorious that Barbra Streisand tried to buy it, only to learn with disappointment that it was a temporary architectural shell built in Washington—the interiors were filmed on a set in California. Still, the look of the Owens home drew such positive attention that production designer Robin Standefer has since moved on to interior design.

Practical Magic’s hangout vibe inverts the traditional romantic comedy formula. Instead of putting a romance at its center and friendship on its periphery, Practical Magic anchors itself around the bonds between women and treats its male characters as something of an afterthought. Sally and Gillian are raised by their eccentric aunts (a scene-stealing Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest), whose rambunctious, rule-free home is a matriarchal oasis in a judgmental small town. Although Practical Magic is palpably aware of the risks of romance—from emotional betrayal to physical abuse to the pain of losing a beloved partner—it argues you can get through anything so long as you have sisters (literal or metaphorical) by your side. Romantic love is nice; platonic and familial love are essential.

That exploration of sisterhood is exactly what made witches such a natural fit for the “girl power!” ethos of the decade. As young women grappled with the intricacies of third-wave feminism and the pressures of ’90s femininity, witches offered a metaphor for gendered issues of power and persecution. Desperate to fit in, Sally suppresses her magical abilities. “She has all this power and she doesn’t even use it,” Sally’s oldest daughter, Kylie (a young Evan Rachel Wood), vents in frustration. Over the course of the film, Sally slowly learns to own her own strength—her hair loosening into curls as her demeanor lightens. In the best shot of the movie, Sally lights a candle with magic and playfully challenges her girls to embrace the gifts she once taught them to hide.

Practical Magic goes from good to great in a climatic final sequence where the Owens must form a coven with the local women who once ridiculed them. Petty small-town grievances melt away once the women hear that Gillian is in trouble. Banishing a demon becomes a bit like throwing together a last-minute cookie exchange, with school moms bringing over brooms and enthusiasm—an example of female solidarity that also handily subverts mean-girl stereotypes in the process. It’s Sally’s love for Gillian that saves the day, but it’s the support of a community of women that enables her to embrace her power. Practical Magic essentially does everything Frozen did to such acclaim decades later, only with an even more radical focus on women and their relationships.

According to Goldsman, Dunne’s original cut of Practical Magic was darker and more ghostly than the final product. English composer Michael Nyman wrote a complex score that was shelved at the last minute in favor of something more traditional. Alan Silvestri’s plucky final score works overtime to let the audience know that everything is going to be okay, even as the film swings wildly from murder to midnight margaritas. But that’s part of what makes Practical Magic so charming. It’s less like a perfectly balanced pumpkin pie, and more like a hodgepodge of Halloween candy tossed together into a trick or treat bag.

As Alanna Bennett wrote for the film’s 20th anniversary, “[Practical Magic] acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.” Though Sally’s romance with Gary isn’t the most memorable part of Practical Magic, it’s one more ingredient in the overall spell the film casts. With his “Gary Cooper-esque kind of integrity,” Aidan Quinn knows how to provide the film a dreamy romantic backbone while also largely staying out of its way.

No one involved with Practical Magic could’ve foreseen the anniversary retrospectives and home-video devotion in the film’s future. As Dunne told Vulture:

When my daughter was in her late teens, I started to notice that her friends loved the movie and quoted the movie and would freak out when they found out that her father directed the movie. I watched it grow and grow and it’s been very touching and unexpected. I’ve gone out with women who have watched this movie every year with their daughters. It’s a lovely kind of surprise.

These days Dunne is probably best known as the uncle on This Is Us, which made sure to include a little nod to Practical Magic in its late ’90s timeline. Appropriately enough, it’s a character’s rude dismissal of the movie that first hints that he’s not the good guy he seems to be.

The most endearing thing about Practical Magic is its confidence in its own weirdness. It delivers a critical examination of gender, oppression, and abuse while simultaneously relishing in the pleasure of women in gorgeous maxi skirts making out with cute men while Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” plays. Practical Magic’s story of women reshaping the world by reclaiming their power captures the best of what the witch genre can do. And with so many of those issues bubbling to the cultural surface again, it’s no wonder that witches are enjoying a pop culture comeback. HBO Max even has a Practical Magic prequel series in the works. It certainly has a big witch’s hat to fill.

Next time: In 2010, Queen Latifah and Common tried to get the balance of love and basketball Just Wright.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.