Review: “Practical Magic” (Film)

Given that I’m absolutely fascinated by the 1990s and that comedy horror is one of my favourite genres, I’m genuinely surprised that it took me as long as it did to discover a film from 1998 called “Practical Magic”.

But, after finding a vaguely sensibly-priced secondhand DVD of it online, I thought that I’d check it out. And, surprisingly, it was a very different type of film to what I had initially expected.

So, let’s take a look at “Practical Magic”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.

“Practical Magic” is a romantic comedy, with horror and dark comedy elements, that focuses on two sisters called Sally and Gillian Owens (played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) who come from a family of witches and live with their two eccentric aunts, Frances and Jet (played by Stockard Channing and Diane West), in an old mansion.

Needless to say, Gillian is more of an extrovert and Sally is more of an introvert.

However, due to the tragic history of one of their distant ancestors, their family is also cursed too. The ancient curse claims the life of anyone that a member of the family truly falls in love with. Although Sally tried to protect herself from falling in love by casting a spell when she was younger, she eventually ends up starting a family with a fairly ordinary guy called Michael. Gillian, on the other hand, leaves town and ends up with a stunningly handsome and intriguingly mysterious guy called Jimmy.

Of course, things start to go wrong for both sisters after a while. After narrowly avoiding being run over by a swarm of cyclists whilst crossing the road, Michael is promptly hit by a truck. Stricken by grief, Sally returns to her aunts and begs them to bring him back from the grave. But, they refuse, claiming that such things don’t usually end well. Eventually, she decides to settle in her ancestral home and open a shop in the nearby town.

A while later, Gillian breaks up with Jimmy after he becomes violent towards her. When Sally goes to pick Gillian up from a motel, Jimmy shows up and kidnaps them. However, a while later, Sally accidentally ends up poisoning him. Panicked, the sisters attempt a resurrection spell.

With whipped cream, no less!

Jimmy suddenly returns to life as a zombie and, after a brief fight, Sally ends up killing him again with a frying pan. The sisters bury him in the garden and decide to keep the whole matter secret from their aunts. But, a few days later, a detective arrives in town looking for Jimmy….

I have very mixed views about this film. One the first things that I will say is that it is both more depressing and more uplifting than I’d originally expected. Although the film certainly contains some brilliantly comedic moments, it really isn’t as much of a comedy as I had expected. Likewise, the film’s horror elements are somewhat creepier and more “serious” than I’d originally expected too. In addition to this, at least one of the film’s romances is both predictable and implausible at the same time.

I don’t know, the film foreshadows this part of the plot, but their romance progresses in a somewhat random way.

Yet, it was a film that really had an emotional impact on me after I’d finished watching it. Although the actual story of the film is a somewhat strange mixture of tragedy, comedy, joy, tedium, creepy horror and emotional drama – this film is much more than the sum of it’s parts. Thanks to the characters, acting, settings and general “atmosphere” of the film, it is the kind of film that will linger in your imagination long after the credits roll.

What initially seems to be one of the film’s main weaknesses – the slightly slow pacing and occasional lack of narrative focus – actually helps the film quite a bit. This is mostly because it allows the film to focus more on the characters, the “atmosphere” and the settings. And this is where this film absolutely excels!

Both the acting and characterisation in this film are absolutely brilliant, with the friendly- but somewhat complicated- dynamics of the Owens family being a central part of the film.

And they even have random late night cocktail parties too.

All of the main characters are really interesting too – whether it’s Sally’s somewhat introverted personality and conflicted attitude towards her magical powers (and towards teaching her daughters magic), or Gillian’s more extroverted (and somewhat paranoid) personality, or Frances and Jet’s brilliantly sarcastic and relaxed attitude towards life, the characters in this film are absolutely excellent.

In addition to this, the film also creates an atmosphere of community through the adversity that the witches face. Whether it is the family curse, the business with Jimmy or the fact that everyone in the nearby town seems to be somewhat suspicious of them, the main characters often have to rely on each other a lot. This feeling of community is another emotional element that will probably linger with you once the credits roll.

However, there is a somewhat implausible (but incredibly uplifting) plot twist later in the film when a lot of people from the town suddenly rally around the witches in their hour of need, despite despising them earlier in the film. This sudden shift is a little bewildering, but it carries a surprising amount of emotional power. It also seems to carry a very slight amount of LGBT subtext too, with Sally’s mention of her own powers being likened to coming out.

Yes, the film tries to explain why some of the townspeople suddenly help out the witches by showing some of them mentioning vaguely intuitive/paranormal experiences in their own lives. Even so, their change in attitude is somewhat sudden/random – even if it works really well in emotional terms.

Likewise, the set design, lighting and effects in this film are astonishingly good too. The film’s locations often have a wonderfully interesting “olde worlde” look to them that is also very distinctively “90s” too. The old wooden mansion that a lot of the film takes place in is almost a character in and of itself, and it’s the kind of place that will linger warmly in your imagination after the film finishes.

The lighting in this film is, in a word, spectacular. As I’ve probably said before, people in the 1980s and 1990s certainly knew how to use lighting well and this film is no exception! Not only are many scenes filled with beautifully gothic gloom, but there are also some absolutely beautiful exterior shots of the mansion at night and even a really cool montage scene when Gillian drives a car.

Seriously, the lighting alone in this scene is brilliant, not to mention the cool time-lapse effects too.

And, wow! Just wow! This scene is a work of art!

And just check out the lighting here too. As I said, filmmakers certainly knew how to use lighting during the 1990s!

The film’s special effects are also really good too, mostly because – for a film about magic – they are surprisingly understated. Since they aren’t the main focus of the film, they often just seem like an organic part of the film rather than a “special effect”.

Although the film probably uses some CGI effects in a couple of scenes, these don’t really stand out as “old CGI” due to the fact that the audience’s attention is drawn towards the events that are happening, rather than the effects themselves.

For example, I’m not entirely certain whether the dust effects in this scene are CGI or not. Since this film’s effects are a bit more understated, it avoids the pitfall of “old CGI” that other films from the time can experience when viewed these days.

Likewise, if you’re a fan of the 1990s, then this film is crammed with 90s nostalgia. Whether it’s the fact that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” plays during one scene, or the gloriously retro costume design in the film, or the optimistic parts of the ending, or the total lack of mobile phones, or the set design etc…. this film is very much from the 90s.

All in all, this is a film that is worth watching for everything except the story. The characters, the atmosphere, the set design, the lighting, the 1990s nostalgia, the comedic moments, the positive emotional moments and the horror elements are all absolutely brilliant. The story, on the other hand, is somewhat unevenly-paced, somewhat unfocused, occasionally implausible and occasionally rather depressing though.

Even so, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those films which may not seem that impressive when you’re actually watching it but will linger in your imagination after you’ve finished watching.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half.

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