Published October 1, 1998
When Shakespeare decided to put a trio of witches into Macbeth he knew that their very presence would suggest to his audience something fearful beyond imagining. They were a kind of algebraic symbol for the unknown quantity of evil which the play, in more realistic fashion, attempted to solve for. Nowadays, the presence of witches in a movie is also a symbol — a symbol not of a fearful but of a hopeful fantasy. Our paradigmatic witch is not the evil and ugly hag but cute and pert Samantha Stevens who, with a twitch of her nose, controls all that which real women tend to feel controlled by — in particular her doltish husband who, nevertheless, remains a model of uxorious devotion.
Practical Magic, directed by Griffin Dunne, is yet another such exercise in female wish-fulfilment and so attracts to the box-office a goodly share of teenage girls with corrupted imaginations. Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock play two sisters, Gillian and Sally Owens, who are supposed to be descended from a Salem witch called Maria. Because Maria was unlucky in love, she put a spell on herself to ward it off, but somehow it turned into a family curse, and ever since her time, any man that one of the Owens women fell in love with was doomed to an untimely death. Gillian and Sally’s father had died thus, and their mother had died not long after of a broken heart, so they were brought up by two maiden and very witchy aunts called Aunt Frances (Stockard Channing) and Aunt Jet (Dianne Wiest).
In growing up the two girls took divergent paths. Sally had shown an interest in “the craft” practised by her aunts, while Gillian had exulted in the more conventional kind of feminine witchcraft with a quantity of which she had been blessed. At an early age, Sally had cast a spell to prevent herself from falling in love by making up the perfect man, who doesn’t exist, as the only one she would love; Gillian had run off with a guy and continued thereafter to run off with several others. The Sally and her aunts didn’t hear from her for some years. Meanwhile, Sally had grown up, met a man, got married and had two kids. They were a very happy family and she thought all the witch nonsense forgotten when one day she heard the death watch beetle that is the harbinger of imminent death for the Owens mate — and sure enough Sally’s husband was flattened by a truck the selfsame day.
Gillian then comes home to help Sally get over her husband’s death. She, Gillian, is currently involved with a Bulgarian calling himself Jimmy (Goran Visnjic) who is from “near Transylvania” and into “this whole Dracula/cowboy thing.” Gillian says that he “speaks of our relationship in terms of centuries” and says that “sometimes we just stay up and worship each other all night, like bats.” Gillian insists that Jimmy is “stronger than the curse.” But after she gets Sally back on her feet again, she calls home in an emergency. Jimmy has hit her and she wants to get away. Sally comes to help her but no sooner finds her than both are kidnaped by the deranged, drugged and violent Jimmy.
What are a couple of witch-gals to do? You can probably guess that, whatever it is, it won’t be very pleasant for the very unpleasant Jimmy — although his spirit possesses a tenacious hold on poor Gillian which it takes a magic circle of hastily deputized neighborhood witches, instructed to bring their own brooms — or, in one case, a dustbuster — to exorcize. As this operation is being accomplished, there also appears, as in most feminine fantasies, the perfect man (girlishly supposed hitherto not to exist) to comfort poor widowed Sally. True, he is at first doubtful about the witch business, and he asks Sally if it does not involve devil-worship. No, says Sally, “The devil’s not in the craft.” But then, she would say that, wouldn’t she?