Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Practical Magic - review

1998 (USA / Australia)

Contains spoilers.

What? The Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman oestrogen fuelled whimsical nineties Wicca rom-com? The one with an ancient hereditary curse, husbands who die young leaving broken hearts and orphan girls with the often poor choice in boyfriends? That's the one. Okay, I was probably very much like you are now, a year or so ago, and despite owning this DVD the best part of fifteen years, and doing this here zombie thing, I'd always shrugged off the idea that it might be worth another look, even if the z word is on the back cover. Well enough is enough, as one, Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic), said poor boyfriend of Gillian, the more feisty and independent of the Owens sisters (Nicole Kidman), does die and is resurrected as something dark and wicked, and two, and I'm not going to hide this, I've always held rather a soft spot for this flick.
Practical Magic is the story of condemned and thwarted love. Two hundred years ago, Maria Owens is exiled with her unborn child after a failed execution on the count of her being an active witch and her neighbours being judgemental and ignorant arseholes. When the father and her lover fails to show for the rescue, she throws down a curse so that she shall never know love again, only such was the heartfelt strength of her sorrow and anger that after she died it failed to lift, instead transferring down and condemning her bloodline forever. Jump forward to Gillian and Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock), two orphaned girls with the gift, forced to live with their Aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest) after their parents too, succumb to the Owens curse.

Well, the girls grow up, they learn the craft, Gillian runs off to party, play and frolic with the sort of boys a good Christian mother wouldn't be happy about and Sally, the more down to earth stays and has a go at making house with all the dire consequences one would expect. This set-up is charming, the characters coherent and inviting and the world the perfect mix of real and magical; of a society full of intolerance and prejudice underpinned by fear, and by that fantastical belief that darkness can always be vanquished by the light of love. But what has this got to do with Zombies?

Well, Gilly's love of 'wrong 'uns' eventually catches up with her in the guise of Transylvanian heart-throb Jimmy Angelov. Not just into drinking, drugs and debauchery, Jimmy also has a bit of an obsessive compulsive disorder for keeping the object of his desire very much in check, both emotionally and physically. Out of her depth, Gilly calls on her deep bond with Sally, Sally comes to her aid and before the night is over they manage to poison Jimmy, resurrect him then kill him again. It's never a good idea to bring someone who's previously really tried to hurt you back to life, especially with the additional caveat they're going to come back even darker, but that's what the girls do. Jimmy, in his initial Zombie form, actually doesn't hang around long, mere seconds, before being dispatched again but he's definitely not the fully compos-mentis Jimmy that was alive, albeit very drunk, earlier that day. 

It's Jimmy, in his second Zombie form, that's occupies the most screen time and is arguably the more interesting. Though is he really a zombie? Though dispatched for the second time his spirit remains and it's neither happy or at rest. At first a nuisance he soon becomes quite attached once more Gilly, literally, and the story becomes one of possession, exorcism, and banishing lost souls and evil spirits (albeit in such a way to bring the townsfolk together, lifting the ancient curse, finding Sally her true love, and bringing harmony and love to all mankind.) I know I've previously stayed away from the subject of possessed souls and zombies; that of a person with their will suppressed, and another non-corporeal will imposed and in command, but in many ways it warrants that the question be asked. Back before Romero when zombies were New World, voodoo and mind control it was merely will over another to do as they commanded that justified the z moniker; and in many ways how is this different, other than the will is of someone / something specifically not of this world. Suffice it to say I don't think it's time to start to adding every possession film to the list just yet; there's a traditional and contemporary idiom that dictates what is or isn't zombie and I need to tread carefully. Here though, with an actual zombie a few moments earlier I do, finally, feel safe to at least include the film and touch on the subject.

Yes Practical Magic is slushy, romantic, emotional, does attempt an uplifting 'and they all lived happily ever after' moral finish, complete with lively country soundtrack, and you can watch it with your children (though some of the bringing back from the dead and possession stuff is perhaps a little much for little ones). Yet it's confident and successful in all that it sets out to achieve; harmless, fun, entertaining and full of feels. Practical Magic is in my opinion an exceedingly joyous way to spend an hour and a half of your family friendly time; that is as long as your black, cynical and miserable heart, or what's left of it, still has room - 8/10.



  1. It is thanks to this film that I know every word to that "lime in the coconut" song. Love this one! Definite guilty pleasure movie.

    1. I have to admit I now know of Harry Nilsson too and have on more than one occasion stumbled across the song on Spotify.

      I'm never sure of how Midnight Margaritas would go down with the family though... On paper it would be a blast though in practice I think my wife may kill me for waking her up...