The Horror Honeys: Witch Month ~ Sisters of the Moon, Unite!

Witch Month ~ Sisters of the Moon, Unite!

A Sci-Fi Honey “Witch Month” Review by Katie

Practical Magic (1998)

Beginning with The Witches in 1990 and closing out the decade with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, the 1990s were awash with witch-centric stories permeating film and television. The resurgence was not just a rehash of age-old horror stories centered on black magic, however; many 90s witches were cultural role models for young women, and an embodiment of the enigmatic and whimsical side of witchery. From Sarah in The Craft (1996) to Sabrina (1996), Buffy’s Willow (1997) and the Halliwell sisters of Charmed (1998), these women were representative of a broader neo-Bohemian movement, forging bonds with nature and harnessing the inherent magic inside of them to find an authentic identity, true love, and a place in a world that routinely misunderstands or outright rejects what it truly means to be a witch. The apex of this movement arrived in 1998, when director Griffin Dunne brought the spellbinding Owens sisters to the screen in Practical Magic: a bewitching look at love, family, and all the hocus pocus that goes along with it.

Adapted from a 1995 novel by Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic fits centuries of exposition into just a handful of opening scenes: the 10-year-old Owens sisters are the latest in a long ancestral line of lady witches, gone to live with their eccentric aunties Frances (Stockard Channing) and Bridget (Dianne Wiest) in a Victorian seaside New England manor after the untimely death of their parents. The kooky spinster aunts feed their nieces chocolate cake for breakfast, perform divinations and incantations instead of homework, and give them advice on how to protect themselves against their perceived otherness in the community. Fast forward more than a decade, and the girls have grown into raven-haired sensitive soul Sally (Sandra Bullock) and crimson-tressed party girl Gillian (Nicole Kidman); still living with their aunties, and still ostracized within their small town – striving to be ‘normal’ until they have to confront their true nature as powerful purveyors of ancient sorcery.

Sorcery and whipped cream. 
Some of these plot descriptors may come off as rather dark, and indeed there are tragic elements to the film: Sally and Gillian’s father died because of an ancient curse that afflicts every man who dares to love an Owens woman, and their mother succumbed to a broken heart soon after. The film is riddled with cruel taunting, fatal car accidents, poisoning, physical abuse, murder, and even lurid supernatural elements: reanimation of the dead, ghostly possession of the living. But despite all this, the film casts a bigger spell as a free-spirited romantic comedy, buoyed by the delightfully nonconformist Channing and Wiest, and Bullock’s flirtatious interactions with 90s stud muffin Aidan Quinn. There’s even a corny ‘falling in love’ montage scored to Faith Hill’s “This Kiss,” something you’re not likely to see in a film that underscores the unwieldy dangers of dabbling in ritualistic magic.

Witches just wanna have fun.
All of these contradictory plot elements coupled with radical shifts in tone means that Practical Magic can be irritatingly uneven story-wise, but it’s an acceptable flaw for a film that is so gorgeously imbued with a pitch-perfect witchy sensibility. Dunne and his production crew nailed the consummate aesthetics of witchcraft lore and re-contextualized it beautifully for modern audiences. The aunties’ Victorian estate is brimming with shelves of spell books, an ever-glowing assemblage of candles, and an indoor garden of herbs and flora used for tinctures and potions – though the ladies’ ‘cauldron’ is a blender serving up midnight margaritas. Traditional iconography of witches, from pointy black hats to roving black cats, makes appearances throughout the film both as ubiquitous elements of their lifestyle as well as winking self-parody. There’s deadly belladonna, eye of newt and toe of frog, omens of insects and blood on the moon, tiger’s eye and talismans, and even the music of ethereal moon goddess Stevie Nicks. As far as enthusiasts of the craft are concerned, the film is a sumptuous visual and atmospheric feast of all things wonderfully witchy.

Want to live here, want these aunts, want cake for breakfast.
Not since Samantha Stephens first wiggled her nose in Bewitched has witchcraft been so charming as it is in Practical Magic, thanks to the film’s enchanting ambiance and the four lead women that bring the Owens’ legacy to life. Though it’s not a perfect film in terms of story or structure, the filmmakers have achieved a fully realized and truly magical sense of place in the Owens home and in their spiritual philosophy. So grab your sisters of the moon, dance around the bubbling margarita cauldron, and revel in this guilty pleasure of 90s bohemia – because despite its many faults, Practical Magic has its witchy heart in the right place.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three-and-a-half midnight margaritas out of five

Practical Magic is available via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube VOD, Vudu
Google Play,  & DVD

Did you want to be a Owens sister?
Tell Katie (or any of the Honeys, really) on Twitter: @moonrisesister