It has been 20 years since Practical Magic first cast its spell on movie-going audiences in October of 1998.
Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman and directed by Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London), the genre-blending film centered on Gillian and Sally Owens (Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock), a pair of hereditary witches in New England straining against the expectations of family and 300 years of prejudice against their magic.
When they find themselves in big trouble after accidentally killing, resurrecting and then re-killing Kidman’s abusive boyfriend (Goran Visnjic), however, they find they must embrace their power, their family, and their community in order to survive.
The film boasted a star-studded cast alongside Kidman and Bullock. Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing filled the roles of Gillian and Sally’s powerful aunts while Aidan Quinn appeared as the dedicated detective attempting to piece together what happened to the erstwhile boyfriend.
Add seasoned veteran character actresses Margot Martindale and Chloe Webb and young up-and-coming stars Camilla Belle and Evan Rachel Wood, and the cast alone became a potent brew.
And yet, upon its initial release, the film was almost completely panned by critics with Roger Ebert remarking that “The movie doesn’t seem sure what tone to adopt, veering uncertainly from horror to laughs to romance.”
Still, it may have been the very mixing of those elements that sparked the imagination of audience members and before long, it had marked its own quiet, unassuming corner in the world of cult films, and a staple for many fans at Halloween.
Taking a little closer look, it isn’t hard to see why.
Dunne and his cast created strong female characters who ultimately recognize that their fears and flaws can actually be empowering while never succumbing to the saccharine-sweet traps that this type of story can often develop.
And all of this while telling a story filled with witches, ghosts, possession, and murder.
The Owens women have been under a curse for 300 years because their ancestor Maria, in a fit of grief over being left by her lover after a failed witch-hanging attempt, cast a spell to never fall in love again. Her bitterness changed the spell, however, and over the centuries it became a truth that any man who fell in love with an Owens woman would meet an untimely death.
In most films with a premise like this, it would be one of the sisters finding a man with whom her love was strong enough to break the curse. In Practical Magic, it is Sally and Gillian’s joined hands, shared blood, and the power of their love for each other and the incredible women who have surrounded them that not only frees Gillian from the spirit possessing her but ultimately breaks the curse that has plagued their family for generations.
This kind of forward thinking, female centered story telling is hard to come by in mainstream genre filmmaking, and it’s especially potent in the film’s climactic scenes as an unlikely coven comes together and their primal screams ring out as the abusive man who has been hurting one of their own is banished.
Add to this a fantastic soundtrack featuring Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis Presley, a score by Alan Silvestri, and brilliant set and costume designs all of which perfectly complement each other, and the film’s spell becomes even more potent.
As the Practical Magic comes to its conclusion and the remaining Owens women fly from the roof of their home to the delight of their now accepting neighbors, I always find myself a little lighter, a little happier, and definitely in the mood to cast a spell or two.
If you haven’t seen it in a while, or if you’ve never seen it because you thought, “Not my kind of movie”, today is the perfect day to make yourself a midnight margarita and give it a try!