Thank the ’90s for Practical Magic
David Sims, Staff writer at The Atlantic/The Atlantic
Griffin Dunne’s ostensible comedy—starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman—mixed horror, empowerment, and romance in ways extremely
unusual for the era.
Two sisters—one more sensible than the other but both of them practicing witches—kill an abusive boyfriend together, bury his body, and then have to reckon with the consequences of the crime after he comes back to life. You’re not laughing? What if I told you the sisters were reckoning with an ancient family curse that mortally doomed any man who fell in love with them? It might not sound like a breezy night at the movies, but 20 years ago, the good folks at Warner Bros. thought it could be.
The result was Practical Magic, Griffin Dunne’s adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s 1995 novel, which follows Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman) as they wrestle with their ancestors’ past, the laws of witchcraft, and the homicide they commit. The film (which is currently streaming on HBO Go) was a box-office flop, grossing $46 million domestically on a sizable $75 million budget. Its critical reception was so poor that Dunne, years later, wondered if the movie had been cursed by a witch who served as a consultant on the film and later sued the studio over a pay dispute.
Practical Magic was a clear harbinger of a gentrifying moment for onscreen witchcraft, coming out the same year as the WB’s Charmed and the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the protagonist’s friend Willow Rosenberg became a practitioner of Wicca. Dunne’s movie plays even more strangely in retrospect, squeezing arcane horror, airy laughs, and romance scored to hits like Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” into a 103-minute package.
That’s why the film sticks in my mind, 20 years later, as the kind of expensive mainstream-studio experiment that’s too weird to dismiss—a work that wove dark themes about gender and power into an ostensible crowd-pleasing comedy.
Tonal dissonance defined Dunne’s early films as a director. An actor who featured in the horror classic An American Werewolf in London and starred in Martin Scorsese’s anarchic ’80s comedy After Hours, Dunne made his directorial debut in 1997 with Addicted to Love, starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick. That was another genre-bending piece of ’90s studio quirkiness: Ryan and Broderick play a pair of jilted lovers whose exes start dating each other. The scorned couple resolve to stalk their former paramours together and break them apart, but eventually (of course) fall for each other. The lead duo’s obsessive behavior toward their exes dances right up to the edge of being disturbing; perhaps unsurprisingly, Addicted to Love bombed with critics and audiences.
The rest of the film sees Sally and Gillian evading the cute cop Gary (Aidan Quinn), who’s investigating Jimmy’s death.
The sisters’ dynamic is fairly typical for a family movie: Sally is a bit of a stick in the mud, while Gillian is wild and spontaneous.
But Dunne eschews whatever disputes might typically erupt from those personality differences and instead throws the women into a murder case. Practical Magic is a romantic comedy of sorts—but only because the sisters have to come to terms with the notion that their relationships with men are eternally bewitched.
That bleak focus makes for sequences that are genuinely frightening, such as when Gillian is possessed by Jimmy’s vengeful spirit. There’s a darkly comic edge even as Sally and Gillian bury bodies and animate corpses, with their aunts flitting around in the background making enchanted margaritas.
For Gillian, ridding herself of Jimmy is like dumping the ultimate bad boyfriend: He becomes the man who won’t go away, who eventually (and literally) burrows into Gillian’s soul and has to be excised. Practical Magic is no Bewitched, where magic spells function as sitcommy plot work-arounds.
Dunne wants the strengths and flaws of the Owens family to feel otherworldly. The final destruction of Jimmy’s ghostly form requires help from other women in the town, who unite to save Gillian; it’s a satisfying moment of sisterhood in a movie that grants very little agency to its male characters. “Strong, complicated women, they aren’t characters that are foreign to me,” Dunne said in an interview, reflecting on his film’s cult status years later. Unfortunately, such women are often foreign to Hollywood—but, occasionally, as Practical Magic proves, they can slip through the net and be remembered for decades.