Autumn Classics: Practical Magic

Examining one of the best three-completely-different-movies of 1998

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Autumn Classics: <i>Practical Magic</i>

As the days shorten and decorative gourds inexplicably start populating the tables of trendy restaurants and your artsy friend’s apartment, many of us love to get cozy with movies that evoke the spirit of the season. This month, Ken Lowe is remembering four Autumn Classics. Be sure to get caught up with our looks at Halloween , The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Hocus Pocus.

I’ve tried to figure out how one humble internet scribe can possibly encapsulate the phenomenon that was Practical Magic in one lowly article, and it turns out that this is impossible. It is impossible because this beloved tale of sisterhood and forbidden magic and botanicals, with a deep bench of some of Hollywood’s most commanding female performers, is actually three different movies (though they are all directed with the same eye for homey aesthetic pleasures and are pushed into the PG-13 territory due to only one or two scenes of endangerment and bodily ickiness).

’Tis the season to engage in dark and forgotten magics, my children, and so I will attempt the cursèd art of fleshcrafting necessary to unite these three disparate artistic visions into one dark and unhallowed whole, in honor of their 20th birthday. Bring me my grimoire and cauldron (the 40-gallon, please).

The Tale of Two Sisters

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Practical Magic is one part feel-good sisterhood drama, and when that’s what you’re aiming for, you could do worse than casting Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman right when they were both just entering into true Hollywood mega-stardom. Sally (Bullock) and Gillian (Kidman) become orphaned at a young age when their father dies unexpectedly and their mother dies of a broken heart. Their aunts, (Stockard Channing and Diane Wiest in full whimsical white magic witch mode) raise them on tales of their family’s witch pedigree. It turns out that a distant ancestor was denounced as a witch.

The opening makes us think she’s destined to be murdered at the gallows before a hard-hearted crowd of ignorant townsfolk, but it turns out that a little thing like a public execution isn’t that hard to stop when you’re, you know, a really powerful witch. When her love life takes a tragic turn, she casts a spell upon herself, barring her from ever being hurt by love again. Unfortunately she performed it too well, and it becomes a curse upon all subsequent generations of her family—the daughters of her daughters will fall in love with hunky dudes and then hear the shriek of the deathwatch beetle, the harbinger of their devoted husband’s untimely deaths. (It’s kind of hard for me to reconcile this with the affectionate tone Channing and Wiest refer to this great grandmother witch with—do the actions of our parents not already cockblock us enough while they’re alive that they need to put a post-mortem curse in place as well?)

As an aside, this sets up one of the things I find the most admirable about Practical Magic, namely that its magic is imprecise and rooted not just in the checklist of icky ingredients and weird ministrations necessary to make it work, but also the emotion and intent of its casters. No spell is ever straightforward in the movie, which is a great underlying decision.

The movie proper begins after this tale, and we see that young Sally and Gillian are taunted and physically assaulted by the townsfolk as witches. This apparently has been going on for hundreds of years. Prompted to consider how love will one day inevitably wreck their whole lives, Sally casts a spell which will call her true love to her, but purposely overloads the mystical Boolean search with qualifiers which must surely select out every possible human male. (It does not. It totally brings Mr. Right to her, but we’ll get to that.) It’s a pretty obvious gun on the mantle, but it’s also a cute scene grounded in believably innocent childhood logic.

Quickly enough, we flash forward to the girls in full Bullock & Kidman mode, and witness Sally becoming the homebody and Gillian running off for a fun and sexy life of trouble, drugs and boy-craziness. Sally falls for the blandest of local men and soon has two daughters of her own by him. Everything is looking great, when she hears that damn beetle. Out of nowhere, her husband is run down in the street. (I want to know what the going rate is for the rent-an-oblivious-driver service Hollywood uses to randomly dispose of loving family members or kids in Final Destination movies.)

Gillian comes back to be with her bedbound sister in her grief as her two daughters (Alexandra Artrip and Evan Rachel Wood!!!!). This is the point where the movie looks like it’s going to be about Sally getting her witchy groove back, learning how to move on from tragedy and really embrace her family’s roots as a practitioner of the wholesome dark arts.

But then we get into another movie.

The Thelma & Louise-meets-Telltale Heart Horror Movie

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At some point, Gillian just up and leaves again, to return to her crazy sexy life style with boyfriend Jimmy Angel (Goran Visnjic). Turns out Jimmy’s nuts, though, and he kidnaps Gillian and drags her to a hotel cross-country, where she gets in a call to Sally. When he apprehends the two of them, Sally manages to slip him enough belladonna to knock him out. His body doesn’t take it well, and the sisters have a corpse on their hands.

Some of the best parts of this movie follow, as the two awkward and panicked sisters sneak around and try to figure out how to resurrect the dead boyfriend, figuring that reanimating him will get them out of a murder charge. They succeed, but as their aunts once warned a distraught Sally, necromancy really doesn’t ever work out well. Jimmy starts attacking them, and they just kill him again and dump his restless corpse into a shallow grave. Soon enough, the defiled soil over him starts sprouting an evil, encroaching rose bush.

And as in all stories of foul play, it’s never long before the law shows up to try to make sense of the disappearance. When detective Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) shows up, Sally finds that she not only feels haunted by the guilt of killing Jimmy, but that she is physically incapable of lying to the ruggedly handsome lawman. At which point we enter yet another movie.

Overcoming the Dead Body between You and Mr. Right

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Detective Hallet just so happens to meet all the crazy requirements of Sally’s childhood love spell—one blue eye and one green, and his favorite shape is even a star (just like his badge!)—and it’s obvious to all but Sally, whose own children frustrate Gillian’s plans to give the man a kindly-go-away potion. This, combined with the constant grim harbingers from Jimmy’s grave and Hallet’s suspicions, threaten to wreck her chances with the dreamy cop.

Eventually, Jimmy’s evil spirit manifests in the real world and attacks the sisters. It seems like Gary is going to get killed, but his tin star reacts to Jimmy’s dead flesh as violently as a rosary might to a vampire’s, and for the moment he seems to be defeated. Freed from the shackles of Aristotle’s cave, with his eyes opened to the world of darkest necromancy, Gary sort of tacitly decides to let the sisters off the hook.

But Jimmy’s not gone quite yet. In one final scene, he takes up unwanted residence inside Gillian—becoming the literal haunting of a woman by her shitty ex. Like any good sister, Sally rallies her aunts and the local ladies on the emergency phone tree to come over and exorcise his belligerent ass for good and all. (These women all shunned them before, but I’ll forgive the sudden turn—nothing unites a community like the opportunity to help somebody have done with an abusive boyfriend.) Forming an impromptu (and amusingly awkward) circle, the new coven rips Jimmy from Gillian’s body, blasts his stupid face into ashes and then joyously sweeps his dead dust out the door.

Practical Magic generally got bad reviews and was definitely a commercial flop, failing to make its budget back. It is a movie that goes zooming off in different directions, where characters come and go and you aren’t entirely sure until quite a ways in what the external conflict is going to be. But it’s clear right from the start that the internal conflict—the longed-for goal of its protagonist, Sally—is to have belonging and affirmation and love while keeping a degree of independence. It ends with her married to Gary, a guy so badass he just dismisses the family curse by calling it bullshit (and it works!) and an out-and-proud witch who has reconnected to her daughters, sisters and surrogate mother figures. It even has beloved character actress Margo Martindale in it. It’s easy to see why it’s become a movie many reach for to get into the spirit of the season where we celebrate the dark and mysterious after a year of hardships and losses.


Kenneth Lowe likes cactus-shaped pancakes. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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