Thank the ’90s for Practical Magic

Griffin Dunne’s ostensible comedy—starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman—mixed horror, empowerment, and romance in ways extremely unusual for the era.

Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in 'Practical Magic'
Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in Practical Magic (Warner Bros.)

Read this plot description and ponder whether it sounds like a good pitch for a light rom-com: 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.

Dunne brought that same odd atonality to Practical Magic (which was written by Akiva Goldsman, Robin Swicord, and Adam Brooks). In its first 15 minutes, the Owens family’s forbidding history is unfolded: Maria, a young witch in colonial times, was exiled to a coastal Massachusetts island for having an affair, and she cursed her own bloodline when her lover failed to rescue her. As a result, any man who falls for an Owens woman is destined to die, and that’s the fate that befalls Sally’s nice husband (Mark Feuerstein), who’s mowed down by a truck. Now a widow with two young daughters, Sally moves back into the home of her aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Bridget (Dianne Wiest) on that same remote island.

This all happens in the prologue. Not only is a family ripped asunder by a wrathful spell, but Sally’s poor children are also mocked in the streets right after their father’s death by the local townspeople, all because of the Owenses’ reputation as a clan of witches. Through it all, Alan Silvestri’s chirpy score tries to keep things feeling pleasant, a trilling flute melody playing over these many mournful affairs. The composer’s skills are tested mightily, with Dunne swerving between horror and humor every five minutes.

Practical Magic is about family, but a theme thrumming throughout is the fearsome strength of independent women. The locals hate Sally’s aunts, though all the pair seems to do is meddle in other people’s love lives (for a price). Their rejection of the traditional family unit—neither is married—is clearly what makes them so alienating to the community. Indeed, any man who enters the story is marked for death from minute one; that goes double for Gillian’s boyfriend, Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic), whom the sisters poison after he gives Gillian a black eye.* Afraid of a pending murder charge, they revive him using dark magic, but he comes back as a demonic zombie, so they have to kill him again.

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. Other scenes are more winsome and flirty, especially when Sally starts to fall for Gary. 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. In Practical Magic, the Owenses’ bond is empowering but limiting: Sally has to exit her period of mourning and allow herself to fall for Gary so that she can cast aside her fears of the family curse (which isn’t lifted by the end of the movie).

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.

* This story originally misstated the cause of Jimmy Angelov’s death.