Practical Magic: Curses and Hauntings and Love Spells, Oh My!
Article ID: 2213
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 7,614
Times Read: 107,782
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: October 16th. 1998
Times Viewed: 107,782
As a film critic, I thought this film was delightfully clever, funny and beautifully photographed, if occasionally a bit sentimental.
As a viewer who read Alice Hoffman's romantic, magical novel upon which this film is based, I was disappointed that certain plot elements were underdeveloped or left out.
As a Witch, I was entertained and enchanted.
As a Witch, I was occasionally horrified.
I feel compelled to recommend this film very highly; but at the same time have some very grave reservations about it...
Wishy-washy? Naw, I am just a Libra-Scorpio cusp!
The main problem with adapting a novel for the screen is that much subtlety can be lost -- and often in the quest to attract a large mainstream audience, certain topics (such as witchcraft) become sensationalized. That happened here, I'm afraid.
I have also written a point-by-point comparison of the novel to the film, but for now I want to offer one Witch's view of what will surely be the most- talked about film in the Pagan Community since The Craft. Be warned: there are many "Red Flags" which denote stereotypes or sensational plot twists that some Witches may take offense at...
Practical Magic is the story of two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, descended from Maria Owens, who is shown as the film opens in a flashback sequence, where she is hanged as a Witch in Puritan New England. Sally and Gillian are orphaned at a young age and go to live with their aunts Bridget ("Jet") and Frances in a huge Victorian house on the ocean. "The aunts, " as Hoffman refers to them, are eccentric and feisty, and played to perfection by Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing, two formidable actresses. Jet and Frances raise the girls unconventionally, allowing them to eat chocolate for breakfast, letting them stay up late and encouraging them in the ancient arts practiced by the aunts: a sort of white witchcraft based in herblore and spells. "Just keep studying your spells, Sally" they say, while knowingly chiding Gillian with "Your talents will emerge in time."
There is a supposed "curse" upon the legacy of Owens women, which is meant to explain why the aunts remain unmarried: any man who falls in love with an Owens woman is doomed to an untimely death (Red Flag #1). Young Sally and Gillian watch fascinated as a lovesick woman who comes to the back door beg the aunts to help her win a man's love (which is to be accomplished by pricking a dove's heart with a needle -- Red Flag #2; also, money changes hands, and this would be Red Flag #3 for many Witches who frown on "charging money for the Craft"). But their responses are quite different: Sally frantically recites "Help me never fall in love" and Gillian grins and whispers "I can't wait to fall in love." The girls are teased by their classmates who chant "Witch, Witch, You're a Bitch" and have only each other for best friends.
Sally does a little spell where she writes down the qualities of the man she will love forever: he has one blue eye and one green eye, can ride a pony backwards, can flip flapjacks in the air, and his favorite shapeis a star. She is convinced such a man will never exist, so she will be safe from "the curse" of the Owens women, and lets the rose petals she has picked blow into the air. This is a moving and magical scene, and an obvious touch of foreshadowing.
Fast forward a few years: Sally and Gillian are nineteen and twenty. True to the aunts' predictions, Sally is the serious, magically-adept one (though she tries to resist the pull of her powers), and Gillian is the sultry, bewitching one -- played by girl-next-door brunette Sandra Bullock, and the magnetic, fire- tressed Nicole Kidman. Gillian leaves home the first chance she gets, eloping with a boy and heading west; she vows to Sally she will return soon, that the sisters will grow old together and die on the same day. Sally stays with the aunts, filling her days gardening, and misses Gillian terribly. The aunts, sensing Sally's loneliness, do a little spell (a "push" they call it later) to bring Sally together with Michael, a sweet young man who works at an apple orchard. They fall in love, marry, and have two daughters, red-haired Kylie and dark-haired Antonia.
In letters, Sally shares the joy she's found with her husband, and Gillian relates her wild party of a life and her exciting relationship with a dark, dangerous man, the handsome Jimmy (Goran Visnjic), an immigrant from Bulgaria who has fallen for the American cowboy mythos, and who is obsessed with Gillian. When Sally hears a beetle chirping beneath the floorboards, she knows Michael is in danger, and rips up the flooring to kill the beetle. But he is killed by a speeding truck, and Sally begs the aunts to bring him back.
"We don't do that, " they say, though they admit they did magic to bring the couple together. She rages at them, saying "It's the curse, isn't it? He died because I loved him too much." They try to calm her, swearing "We didn't think you'd ever really love him." Sally is angry and desperate, saying "I don't care what he comes back as, as long as he comes back!" (Red Flag #4 -- this idea of Witches doing spells to raise the dead is right out of Stephen King's Pet Sematary and it does not stop here, unfortunately) Soon after, Sally, who has moved with her daughters back into the aunts' house, overhears the aunts talking about herblore with Kylie and Antonia, and she puts her foot down: "My children will never do magic -- ever!"
Despondent and depressed, Sally takes to her bed; not even her daughters can convince her to get dressed. She writes a letter to Gillian about her sadness, and the letter includes a poetic invocation of the man she hopes to find someday. But Gillian is already on her way. She arrives for a brief visit and convinces Sally to begin to live again, for her daughters' sake. Gillian confides that she and Jimmy sometimes stay up all night talking, that he has a fascination with his "Dracula-cowboy" persona and talks of their relationship in terms of centuries. She tells Sally she sometimes doses the overly-affectionate Jimmy with belladonna, so he will allow her to sleep. "You're drugging your boyfriend so you can get some sleep -- doesn't that seem strange to you?" (Red Flag #5 -- belldonna is poison, kids; don't try this at home -- in the novel, she used nightshade) When Sally awakens in the morning, Gillian has already left.
Soon after this, Sally has opened a shop called "Verbena, " selling her own herbal products, soaps, shampoos, and the like. One of her employees (Sid and Nancy's Chloe Webb) is pretty obviously a Witch -- how do I know? Why, she dresses in black all the time! But she also is a character who is s sort of mouthpiece for Neopaganism, so I applaud the screenwriters for creating her -- she explains the difference between Wicca and devil worship to customers, and has some clever lines about Sally's "coming out" as a Witch. One day Sally's daughters walk to the shop and are followed by classmates who pull the same old "Witch, Witch" chant on them. Sally mutters under her breath "You'd think after 300 years they'd come up with something more original." The fiery Kylie (who takes after Gillian) points at one young boy and says "I hope you get (dramatic pause) chicken pox!" This is hilarious, with the kids being led away by their horrifed parents, and with Kylie being dragged off by Sally, muttering to Antonia "She has all this power and she doesn't even use it!" Of course, the kid is shown later on covered with chicken pox, but the idea that a commonplace childhood illness could be the result of a young girl's curse is rather humorous...
One night the phone rings and Sally knows it is Gillian in trouble. Jimmy has hit her, and she wants Sally to come get her. The aunts say they'll take care of Kylie and Antonia, and will bring them to the Solstice Celebration that night. Sally protests, saying she doesn't want her daughters dancing naked under a full moon. Aunt Frances pooh-poohs this, saying the nudity is entirely optional "as you well remember." Dianne Wiest's amazing comic timing allows her to steal the scene over and over -- I loved her portrayal.
Sally arrives in Arizona, and finds Gillian with a black eye. Just as they are about to leave, Gillian sees a red cloud over the moon ("Blood on the moon, " she says which is apparently a bad omen), and remembers she left her tiger eye pendant in Jimmy's car, where he is supposedly lying in a belladonna-induced stupor. But Jimmy puts a gun to Gillian's head and forces Sally to drive them in his car. Between them, the sisters manage to put enough belladonna in his bottle of tequila to knock him out...but he dies (duh -- because BELLADONNA IS POISONOUS!) and they drive the corpse back to the aunts' house. Gillian, terrified she will be jailed for murder, insists they try a spell to raise him from the dead. After a comical bit where they are too grossed out to poke a needle in his eyeball, draw a white pentagram on his chest with canned whipped cream, burn sweetgrass, and make purring noises, then recite an odd charm, Jimmy's corpse does indeed come to life, with silver eyes. Jimmy immediately tries to strangle Gillian. Sally "kills" him again, with a cast iron skillet.
Cut to: Sally and Gillian digging a grave in the pouring rain. They decide not to tell the aunts a thing (BIG MISTAKE -- you can't hide anything from these gals) . The aunts return with Kylie and Antonia, who are babbling happily about how cool the ritual was. They meet their Aunt Gillian for the first time and immediately love her. The aunts are happy to see Gillian as well, and Frances says about her black eye "A little mugwort will fix that right up!"
One night the aunts are making a potion, reciting ingredients: "Eye of newt, tongue of frog." It turns out they are making "midnight margaritas" and Sally and Gillian join them. In a brilliantly disturbing and funny scene, the four women get drunk and find themselves blurting out things that are perhaps better left unsaid. They start doing shots of tequila and laughing hysterically. Then Frances and Jet begin singing "You Are Always On My Mind, " the Willie Nelson tune Jimmy always sang to Gillian. Sally notices the bottle they are drinking from is the same bottle of tequila they drugged Jimmy with. She demands to know where it came from. Still in chorus, the aunts sing "Someone left it on the porch!" Sally and Gillian both get nervous and the aunts demand to know what's up. But Sally and Gillian won't tell.
By the next morning, it is apparent that Kylie can see Jimmy's ghost, under a rosebush that has mysteriously grown overnight out ofhis grave. In a moment reminiscent of the death of the Wicked Witch of the East, Jimmy's boot tops are seen sticking out of the mud, only to disappear before Sally and Gillian's eyes. As Sally is frantically attacking the rosebush with clippers, Gary Hallett (Aidan Quinn, in another perfect bit of casting) drives up. He is a police officer investigating the disappearance of Jimmy, and is looking for Gillian. He found Sally because of the letter she sent Gillian at Jimmy's address. Sally is upset that he read such a personal letter, and it is obvious that Gary, a down-to-earth but rather sensitive man, feels he knows a lot about Sally as a result. She asks him inside, and goes to find Gillian.
Gillian assures a distraught Sally it will be easy to lie to Gary. She puts on a sexy green velvet chemise, and flirts openly with him (Red Flag #6 -- the Witch as Seductive Temptress; Goddess, but Kidman is great at this! A perfect bit of casting), saying she left Jimmy several days ago and has not seen him since. Gary, noting Gillian's black eye, shows her a photo of a girl who he believes was murdered by Jimmy; who bears a brand on her leg similar to the one Jimmy tried to give Gillian, by heating his silver ring in a matchflame. The sisters admit it's Jimmy's car in the driveway, and Sally stutteringly tells Gary her side of the story. Gillian gets angry because Sally is definitely acting guilty. Gary says he will return the next morning.
After scraping some bits of belladonna out of the car, Gary has it towed away. He questions the people in town, who all have wild stories about the aunts and their nieces. The various women speak of the Owens curse, the fact that the aunts don't age, and that Sally sells bars of soap "made of placenta" at her shop. When he questions Sally's helper at the shop, she sets him straight, saying Sally's a Witch but definitely not evil. She even makes some remarks about the confusion between devil worship and Wicca, and assures Gary "Sally's not into that stuff."
Gary arrives at the Owens' the next morning. Kylie and Antonia are excited that he is there for breakfast. They have found Sally's book where she wrote her long-ago love spell, and they note many similarities in Gary Hallett. They reluctantly assist Gillian in making a potion that will banish him. (Red Flag #7 -- how many little girls will now believe it's okay to spike someone's pancake syrup?)
Gary questions Sally about her beliefs. He mentions devil worship, and she says "There's no devil in the Craft." He asks what sort of craft she's into -- she says she makes soaps, hand cream, shampoo. Then she mentions her aunts like to meddle in people's love lives, and that magic isn't just about spells and potions. She then asks to see his badge, and says that the star symbol is a talisman with power because he believes it has power.
Making breakfast, the girls see that Gary knows how to flip pancakes in the air, so they decide to throw Gillian's charmed maple syrup into the ocean. As Gillian, Gary and Sally look out over the water, they see a frog on a rock next to them. It spits out Jimmy's ring. Gary warns Sally and Gillian to get a lawyer, and not to even think about leaving town. He leaves, furious.
Sally goes to his hotel room, intending to "confess." She admits she and Gillian killed Jimmy, but does not explain how it happened. Sally asks Gary how often he re-read her letter; he says "about a thousand times." He admits he came all this way partly because of her. They embrace passionately, and are confused as to how to proceed. Sally sees he has one green eye and one blue eye, and leaves suddenly.
Sally and Gillian decide Jimmy is haunting them. As Sally hugs her sister, Gillian is suddenly "possessed" by Jimmy's ghost. As Gillian attacks Sally, Sally knocks her out. The aunts arrive, finally understanding what happened. Frances scolds Sally, saying "This is what comes of dabbling -- you can't practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it." This is one of those moments when it is very apparent the screenwriters did their homework and made the effort to portray Witches with integrity.
In an unusual sequence that follows (which I had hoped was a dream but no such luck), Gary has come back and witnesses Jimmy's ghost rising out of Gillian's body. Jimmy burns his hand (badly) on Gary's silver badge (kind of like a silver bullet? I guess this is as close as this film comes to embracing the pentagram as a symbol of power), and Jimmy's ghost seems to depart for the moment.
Sally says she must have somehow called to Gary, that he was the lover she dreamed of as a little girl; he also says he called to her, too. But they part, overwhelmed and unsure if they should pursue their feelings, given the circumstances. Sally cries as he leaves.
Gillian again is taken over by Jimmy, and is physically weakened. The aunts decide to intervene, and ask Sally if she has any friends, since "This will take a coven." (Red Flag #8 -- since when do Witches call up perfect strangers to enlist their help in an exorcism?) In a clever bit, Sally calls everyone on the PTA phone tree (which had long excluded her because of everyone's fear of her witchcraft). Sally's helper at the store crows that "Sally is coming out!" They all arrive with brooms (one with a dustbuster).
The aunts have prepared a huge boiling cauldron. They perform what looks like an exorcism rite, asking the women to repeat the chant in Latin (this is quite funny, as some of the women are not sure what they are reciting but try to fake it anyway -- sounds like some circles I have been to!) Gillian begs Sally to "let him take me" but Sally will not leave her sister, saying they must die together (Frances and Jet behind them clasp hands, reaffirming this). Repeating a gesture performed when the two separated as teenagers, Sally slashes their palms with a knife and mingles their blood; this breaks Jimmy's hold over Gillian. Gary's spirit is expelled in a burst of brilliant light and a cloud of ashes, and the women sweep the dust outside. Sally and Gillian dump the cauldron over the grave (presumably this is acid that will destroy the body -- that is implied in the novel, at any rate). For some reason, the other women accept this all matter-of-factly, though it would look mighty suspicious to most people. Hey, it's Hollywood, gotta have that coven of Thirteen Witches! (So Many Red Flags here, they defy counting)
Sally receives a brief, impersonal letter which confirms Jimmy's death is officially recorded as accidental and she will no longer be under investigation (Red Flag #9 -- Witches can get away with murder!!!) He shows up, he and Sally embrace, and everyone lives happily ever after. In the final scene, the entire village arrives at the Owens house on Hallowe'en, where all of the Owens women, down to Antonia and Kylie, dressed in black witch hats and dresses (Red Flag #10 -- yeah, we all dress like this! Really!), and, clutching black umbrellas, "fly" to the ground from the roof of the house. Their community all stand there with candles, cheering. It has the feeling of a vigil, as if the reputation of the Owenses, along with the curse, has been vindicated. But there is no real explanation or reason given for this. Sure looks cool, though...(Red Flag #11 -- kids, witches can't actually fly; don't try this at home).
And there you have it. Entertaining, yes. An accurate and honest depiction of Witchcraft? At times. But for the most part this is an attempt to make a feel-good movie about Witches, complete with every stereotype ever uttered, based on a popular novel that does not ever stoop to steretypes, in fact barely even mentions the "w" word.
How the general public will react is anyone's guess. I think for the most part people will love this film, find it funny, romantic, etc. How the fanatics and fundies react is also anyone's guess; do they go to movies? The most damaging parts of this film have to do with the lack of effort to resolve or explain things, the lack of grounding in reality. Even with its magical atmospheric touhces, the novel is very much grounded in reality, which emphasizes the idea that magic is all around us, every day. The film version mocks this, with its special effects and demon possession and witches flying with umbrellas...A filmmaker will get this witchcraft thing right some day, I know...but probably not a filmmaker working out of Hollywood.
But go! See this witty and wonderful film, enjoy the marvelous acting and the sensual photography. And read the novel, so you can appreciate these characters and their story in a slightly more magical (in the truer sense of the word) way...
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Friday, October 16, 1998
Email: [Staff Email]
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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