Practical Magic (1998) is a cult classic fantasy romantic drama that is a staple for many people’s Halloween viewing. While not a scary movie, the film follows a family of witches and ends with a feel-good Halloween scene. Like Hocus Pocus (1993), it’s one of the lighter non-horror movies that tend to be beloved by horror fans.
Based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic is about a family of witches cursed by their ancestor Maria, who was betrayed by her lover. As a result, whenever a woman in the family falls in love, her lover dies an untimely death. Sisters Gilly (Nicole Kidman) and Sally Owens (Sandra Bullock) were raised by their aunts Frances (Stockard Channing) and Bridget (Diane Wiest) after their father is killed by the curse and their mother dies of a broken heart.
In their small Massachusetts town, the Owens family are viewed as outcasts because they are known to be witches Gilly and Sally are bullied as children, and Sally eschews magic though she is naturally gifted. As a teenager, Gilly runs away to escape the oppressive small town and the family’s notoriety. Years later, the sisters reconnect when Sally’s husband is killed by the curse. Grieving, Sally has moved back in with her aunts but has banned them from teaching magic to her daughters.
Shortly after, Gilly calls Sally and asks for help because her boyfriend, Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic), is abusing her. Sally rushes to Gilly’s side and accidentally kills the belligerent Jimmy with belladonna while trying to sedate him. Desperate, the sisters perform a spell to raise Jimmy from the dead but are forced to kill him again when he becomes violent. The rest of the film deals with the police investigation into Jimmy’s disappearance and his lingering spirit, which begins to possess Gilly.
While Practical Magic didn’t make back its $75-million budget and critics gave it poor reviews, it is now one of the most popular witch movies of all time. Here are some fun facts and behind-the-scenes trivia about a treasured Halloween classic:
1. The Owens’s house was deemed so important to the film that while much of the film was shot on a soundstage in California, a real house was built for the film on park land on San Juan Island in Washington. It was an architectural shell and the inside of the home was never completed. It was demolished immediately after filming.
2. Because the house was built on park land that had Native American heritage, no digging was allowed, which was one reason the home was only a shell. This was also the reason the house was torn down as soon as filming was finished.
3. After the movie came out, production got a call from Barbra Streisand, who wanted to buy the house.
4. Sally’s apothecary shop was filmed in the town of Coupeville on Whidbey Island in Washington. In real life, the space is a bakery.
5. In the final scene, most of the population of Coupeville showed up to play townspeople watching the Owens women’s annual Halloween performance. They were paid $40 per day to work as extras.
It was literally like a cauldron. Every emotion, theme and ingredient you could imagine was swirling around in it. I particularly liked the women’s use of magic; it comes right from the title. It’s about a more practical, almost holistic approach that seems like a gift that virtually anyone could have.Griffin Dunne, Practical Magic: The Romantic Victorian that Cast a Spell
6. Director Griffin Dunne starred in the horror comedy An American Werewolf in London (1981) as Jack Goodman, an American backpacker who is killed by a werewolf and then appears to his friend as a ghost.
7. Dunne is writer Joan Didion’s nephew.
8. Dunne’s sister, Dominique Dunne, was also an actress. Her big break was Poltergeist (1982). The year it premiered on the day before Halloween, Dominique was strangled to death in her West Hollywood driveway by her ex-boyfriend, John Thomas Sweeney. He served only 3.5 years in prison.
9. The film’s iconic soundtrack is headlined by Stevie Nicks, who used it to promote her (then) new song “If You Ever Did Believe” and a new version of her song “Crystal.” Both songs had Sheryl Crow singing backup vocals.
10. Another big song on the Practical Magic soundtrack is Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which is featured in the scene where Gilly drives all night to comfort a grieving Sally. A CD with the song and the script pages were sent to Nicole Kidman to convince her to sign on to the role.
11. For the “midnight margaritas” scene, Nicole Kidman actually brought some “very bad” tequila to the set, and the four women were actually drinking while filming. Many of the crew members also imbibed while working on this scene.
12. Nicole Kidman’s last project before Practical Magic was Eyes Wide Shut (1999), written and directed by Stanley Kubrick. She was used to doing “seventy or eighty” takes for each scene, while Sandra Bullock was used to doing the normal two or three.
13. In the commentary, it’s stated that cast and crew heard “supernatural noises” while filming the coven scene at the end of the film.
When I visited the stage set for Practical Magic in Los Angeles, I realized that the set designers had created a complete physical world out of their imagination, just as I had. It was as if we were both novelists.Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic: The Romantic Victorian that Cast a Spell
14. Scream queen Camilla Belle plays young Sally Owens. Evan Rachel Wood plays Sally’s daughter Kylie.
15. Young Sally casts a spell that was meant to prevent her from falling in love by focusing on a man who doesn’t exist. One of the requirements in the spell is that the man will have “one blue eye and one green.” Gary Hallet has a condition called heterochromia iridum, where he has two irises with different colors.
16. The film was imagined as a darker take on the story, but Warner Bros. edited the film down to the lighter story it is today.
17. It’s implied by the aunts’ clothing that due to being witches, the Owens women live much longer than normal people.
18. Jimmy Angelov was originally a regular Texas redneck, but the director rewrote the part as an Eastern European man after seeing Goran Visnjic in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997). Visnjic is actually Croatian-American, not Bulgarian.
19. The role represented a change for Sandra Bullock, who committed to giving up “trying to make blockbusters” after the Keanu-less Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) failed at the box office. Instead, the actress promised to take only roles that really interested her.
[Practical Magic] acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.Alanna Bennett, “Practical Magic” Is 20 Years Old And Just As Relevant As Ever
20. In one scene, the name of the island where the family lives is seen on a poster as “Maria’s Island,” a reference to their ancestor Maria Owens.
21. There really is a “deathwatch beetle” in folklore which is said to predict the death of those who hear it.
22. The idea that the sisters share power by cutting their hands and becoming blood sisters is revisited in Ginger Snaps (2000).
23. Before Michael’s death scene, he is shown being followed by a black dog, a death omen in many cultures (including the “Grim” in the Harry Potter series).
24. Alice Hoffman’s novel is very different from the movie. Gilly and Sally don’t live with their aunts, there is no curse that kills their lovers, Antonia and Kylie’s ages are switched, there are no midnight margaritas, and it focuses way more on Antonia and Kylie and less on Frances and Bridget.
25. Stockard Channing lied about being fluent in French because she wanted a free trip to Paris to record the French dubbing for international versions.
26. A real witch served as a consultant on the film. When she became unhappy with her contract, she threatened to curse the film. The consultant told director Griffin Dunne, “You’re not going to buy me off with a hotel room…I want a percentage of the movie. I’m going to have my own Practical Magic cookbook….I want an additional $250,000 dollars.” She then sued Warner Bros. and left a voicemail for a producer where she was speaking in tongues. Dunne had the legal department pay her off and paid for an exorcism ceremony to be performed on himself to get rid of the curse.
27. Despite the consultant’s antics, real witches love Practical Magic.
28. For the scene where a possessed Nicole Kidman flops around on the floor, rubber floors were used to avoid injury. The director praised Kidman’s acting during this scene, saying, “Her skin would go bright red, from white to red to white in waves of, you know, purging. It was intense.”
29. Practical Magic is often cited as one of the inspirations behind the “cottagecore” trend.
30. In 2004 a pilot called Sudbury (based on the novel’s location of Sudbury, Massachusetts) was produced based on Practical Magic with Kim Delaney as Sally and Jeri Ryan as Gilly. The show wasn’t picked up despite Sandra Bullock executive-producing the pilot.
31. In 2010, a prequel series was attempted for ABC Family, but it was never produced.
32. In 2019, HBO ordered a pilot of Rules of Magic based on another Alice Hoffman book about the Owens family. The synopsis of that show was “Set in 1960s New York City, the series follows three troubled siblings — Franny, Jet and Vincent Owens — who wrestle with ‘abnormalities’ that have kept them isolated. But the tumultuous times unearth the extraordinary discovery that they are, in fact, descendants of a bloodline of witches. The two sisters will become the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in ‘Practical Magic,’ while their brother will leave an unexpected legacy.” The show may have been derailed by the pandemic or faced other production issues. It’s unknown whether it will ever be made.