Applied Sorcery should always be a cult classic. Sure, four acclaimed – if not critically acclaimed – actors headed the cast, the director happened to be Joan Didion’s nephew, and the studio gave him a sizeable budget by ’90s standards. Upon its release in October 1998, however, an overwhelming number of critics found it flawed. To put it in 2022: One could read friendlier reviews don’t worry darling.
That Los Angeles Times compared it becomes “a sitcom from which the air is deflated”. CNN called it “not particularly good” and the New Yorker explained can’t decide for himself if it was “a horror show, a cute comedy, or a soap opera.” But to the woman who wrote the 1995 novel Applied Sorcery was adapted, Alice Hoffman, the film was flawless. Not because she wrote the source material, but because her brand of magic wasn’t made for the mainstream. The Chronicles of the Cursed Owens Wives was meant for people like them – for someone who had long sought footing in places he thought he didn’t belong and found it in tales that balanced the painful realms and the deeply magical in mind . Witches, she reminded Jezebel over the phone, weren’t just her favorite protagonists. They were personal deities.
“For me — and I think it’s for a lot of women and girls — I felt like they were figures with power, and I felt very powerless,” she said. “It was just very exciting and thrilling to think of a witch who didn’t care if she was portrayed as ugly – which of course I felt was that – or not beautiful enough or whatever, but still had power and it didn’t deeds must be saved.”
Of course, Hoffman’s witches aren’t just powerful; in the film they are too very hot. Applied Sorcery follows sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman), two Owens witches in a long, beleaguered line beginning with ancestral matriarch Maria Owens. After an affair with history Salem Witch Hunters John Hathorne, Maria placed a curse on herself and her bloodline to ensure that anyone who falls in love with an Owens woman would meet an untimely death. Inevitably, the curse gives way to loneliness, heartbreak, and of course, a tragic death, though it was intended to save Maria’s successors from such pain. It’s an apparent metaphor for the real-life generational curses that ravage women’s lives, and all the foolish attempts to protect themselves from inheriting them. Gillian rushes headlong into affair after affair, even if it means becoming a little…obsessed. Indulging in the torment of love is an age-old mistake for Sally that she would rather continue to hex herself against.
“I think that’s what we do when we’re hurt and traumatized,” Hoffman explained of this instinct of self-preservation. “We’re doing something designed to protect us, but it’s actually cutting us off from certain parts of our lives that are actually enriching.” That, too, was personal to her. Hoffman alluded to the decision not to have children years earlier: “You make certain decisions without really knowing the whole story when you’re young.”
If this all sounds a little more complicated than Hollywood’s typically hackneyed approach to witches (mumbo-jumbo, anyone?), you are right if you think so. Due in large part to the rich characterization and expertly crafted fantastical realism, Applied Sorcery is to be taken more seriously. As the literal Sally and the handsome Gillian grow from little girls to women, they find they have little trouble charming men in Hoffman’s world, where even the mundane admits of a little magic. Chocolate cake is meant to be bolted for breakfast, and margaritas are meant to be made by midnight (a popular detail written specifically for the film by a crew consisting of three quarters men). When one of Gillian’s dalliances becomes dangerous, the Owens’ wives have no choice but to attempt to break the curse with the help of their aunts Frances and Jet (the inimitable Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest) and local townswomen. In short, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill Gillian’s abusive friend in an act of self-defense and are plagued not only by his malicious spirit but also by a police investigation. But the sisters don’t go to prison for murder, and the detective turns out to be a good guy – Sally’s one true love, in fact. How’s that for the imagination!
It hasn’t escaped Hoffman that nearly 25 years later, her story is considered one of the most popular Halloween movies among women. Social media will be inundated in September Applied Sorcery Memes, quotes and costume replicas. Every October, the small town of Coupeville, on Whidbey Island (north of Seattle), where the film was filmed, invites superfans to an anniversary celebration. Hoffman surmises that the fact that each delightfully multifaceted protagonist – Sally, Gillian, Frances and Jet – represents women at different stages of life has something to do with their enduring appeal.
“I often think people think ‘I’m like Sally’ or ‘I’m like Gillian,’ but as they get older things change,” Hoffman said. “We have so many different qualities in us that you can be Gillian when you’re 18 and then when you’re 30 you’re like Sally and then you become like Franny. It’s a bit like the different stages of womanhood, only all within the same family.”
Perhaps more importantly, it is a story about women choosing to break away from generations of persecution that is often perpetuated by women. through Applied Sorcerylocal women privately seek the advice of the Owens witches, despite publicly denouncing them. It’s obvious that Sally and Gillian are despised not just because they’re witches, but because they’re freaking cool. Reformation rakes in millions selling the kind of fashion statements that make Owens women look effortless. The baby t-shirts! The ultra flat sunglasses! The cuddly midi dresses! They’re the kind of sexy that’s angering the PTA and causing the city’s soccer moms to cling to their cardigans (and their husbands) a little tighter. And yet, when the Owens women are finally forced to beg them for collective power, no one denies their pain. Every townswoman shows up broom in hand at the suitably cool Owens’ home (a shell built on Warner Bros. lot, much to the chagrin of money-hungry admirers). The Owens Curse is broken not only by the bond of blood sisters, but also by the solidarity of the chosen sisterhood.
For some it might have been a hilarious conclusion to a mostly hilarious story, but for fans it feels like the proper culmination of an inherently feminist fable — as aptly as Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” paired with Sally’s leap into the arms of her first love , or Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” played during Gillian’s drive home to ease her sister’s grief. With every viewing, it’s clearer that Hoffman’s story, while it didn’t quite charm critics of the ’90s, captivates anyone who’s ever felt cursed enough.
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