why 'practical magic' still resonates 20 years later
Midnight margaritas anyone?
When we think about 90s witch movies, The Craft is usually what comes to mind first. Many real-life witches who grew up in the 90s can attest to that film being the impetus to their magickal practice. But it would be curious if witches namechecked Practical Magic as the source instead. The movie, which came out 20 years ago this week, is based on Alice Hoffman’s book of the same name. It tells the story about the Owens sisters, Sally and Gillian, who are descended from a family of witchy women.
While there are plenty of whimsical aspects to being an Owens — chocolate cake for breakfast, wearing angel wings on a non-Halloween day, practicing spells — there are downsides, too, including an ill-fated love curse. Every man an Owens sister falls in love with ends up meeting an untimely death. Young Sally decides to protect herself against her unlucky dating destiny with a love spell, “Amas Veritas,” making a grocery list of what she deems an impossible man, (which includes, among other things, heterochromia). When the girls grow up, Gillian (Nicole Kidman) runs away to LA, but not before sharing a blood oath with her sister. Sally (Sandra Bullock) stays in town, marrying the town grocer (unknowingly with help from her love spell-meddling aunts, Frances and Jet, played by Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, respectively), has two daughters who look eerily similar to her and Gillian, and then, because of the curse, loses her husband. Then comes murder, spiritual possession, and a police investigation. This movie has a lot going on.
In fact, one of the major criticisms during the film’s 1998 release was its hodgepodge of genre elements: Was Practical Magic a romantic comedy, a drama, or a horror movie? Roger Ebert gave it a mere two stars for its indecisive tone (two and a half stars is a recommendation) and even panned the now-iconic “This Kiss” scene when Sally first meets her doomed boo. (If only he knew the amount of millennials on Twitter who’d profess their love for the Faith Hill music moment). But even with its mélange of cinematic themes, there is so much to love about this movie, beginning with the fashion. While The Craft’s spiked collars, black lipstick, and PVC skirts evoked a “can’t sit with us” vibe, the costumes in Practical Magic are more casual, and the characters more approachable. With her cardigans, jean shorts, and floral skirts, you wouldn’t know Sally was a powerful witch. Gillian slinks around in 90s bad-girl velvet slip dresses, but that’s as edgy as she gets, and she balances it out with normcore sweats and flannel PJs. While the aunts’ clothing could be deemed the most witch-like — i.e. high-neck Victorian dresses, oversized hats, and layered jewelry — their color palette is still warm and inviting. Neutral shades and lush, rich tones dominate any sign of standoffish crone black.
Aside from the fashion inspo, Practical Magic blesses us with a Stevie Nicks soundtrack, and a story of true blue sisterly love. We’ve seen this kind of powerful female chemistry onscreen many times before — Sally and Gillian have also been compared to Thelma and Louise — but there’s a kind of spark between Kidman and Bullock that make us believe that they’re siblings, that wishes they really were. It’s there when they slice their palms, vowing, “My blood, your blood, our blood.” It’s there when Gillian senses her sister’s depression, driving all night and day to reach her, snuggling in her bed, and listening to her grief while also teasing her stank breath. It’s there when she sends her own telepathic bat signal to Sally asking for help with escaping her abuser, the “Dracula-cowboy” Jimmy Angelov. The sisters protect and heal each other. They lift each other up and out of the dark.
While Practical Magic is considered light-hearted fare, it wasn’t without some darkness, or rather, drama, behind the scenes. In a 2017 interview with Vulture, director Griffin Dunne described being hexed by a witch consultant he had hired for the film. She wanted more money, but the producers weren’t going to give it to her. “I’m going to put a curse on you. I’m putting a curse on this movie, and I’m putting a curse on Griffin,” Dunne recalled the witch saying. After leaving a threatening voicemail in which she spoke “in tongues,” Warner Bros. was freaked out enough to pay her off. Then there was the attempted murder. In 2000, after watching the movie with a friend, a woman named Heather Miller decided to poison her husband — à la Jimmy Angelov — by grinding 100 tablets of belladonna into powder and spiking his shepherd’s pie. (Miller was arrested before she could commit the deed.)
In Practical Magic, the female bond extends beyond familial lines. Once scorned for her magickal ancestry, Sally ends up enlisting the women on the school’s emergency phone tree to join her impromptu coven. Without question, the women arrive at the Owens’ house, brooms in tow, ready to help Sally exorcise Gillian from her demonic ex. “Her sister just got out of a bad relationship and now the guy won't leave her alone,” one woman makes of the scenario. When another shares how she psychically sensed her daughter having a nightmare across town, Aunt Jet replies, “There’s a little witch in all of us.” While Nancy and The Craft coven were in their own secluded, Manon-worshipping circle, the Owens women and their gifts are accessible to non-witch outsiders. In spite of the townspeople’s whisperings, the women share themselves — from Sally’s quaint botanical shop, to the aunts and their love spells, to the makeshift coven at the end of the film.
The message of sisterly connection and female strength are why (aside from the aforementioned Faith Hill song) Practical Magic is still beloved two decades later. In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of the witch icon in both pop culture and in real life. There’s the feminist, hypercolor flick The Love Witch, a reboot of the 90s TV show Charmed, and the upcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a new, darker version of the Sabrina, the Teenage Witch character. Why the return of the witch, now? It’s not just that witches are cool as hell, but they have always been a symbol of female empowerment, which of course, scares the shit out of a lot of people.
Much like the Owens sisters opened themselves to the outside world, today’s witches are using social media and the internet as a modern-day phone tree, organizing covens and supporting each other to speak up and fight for justice, alongside movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp. They’re sharing photos of their altars on Instagram, reblogging new moon rituals via Tumblr, and organizing mass hexes on the Trump administration, Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh. Where witches were once ostracized, in today’s feminist social climate they are celebrated. They’re launching podcasts, being offered book deals, and collaborating with brands. Of course, with that comes the other side of the coin, with these corporate brands capitalizing and co-opting the occult through “starter witch kits” and overpriced sage bundles. But there’s no denying that the accessibility and normalization of witchcraft is also allowing people to connect with themselves and nature more than ever before, putting themselves first and foremost.
Like The Craft, the women of Practical Magic are front and center. Yes, there are men, but they’re secondary characters, even if one of them is supposed to symbolize some kind of unattainable, manic pixie dream boy, and even if a broken-hearted Sally dreams of “a love that even time will lie down and be still for.” When it comes down to it, it’s all about the women — the Owens sisters and their bond. That is the real magick. Mix some midnight margaritas and toast to that.