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The Craft. 1996. Directed by Andrew Fleming. Screenplay by Peter Filardi & Fleming.
Starring Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich, Christine Taylor, Breckin Meyer, Nathaniel Marston, Cliff De Young, Assumpta Serna, Helen Shaver, Jeanine Jackson, & Brenda Strong. Columbia Pictures Corporation.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
The 1990s were an underrated time for horror. Certainly not the best decade, but most certainly not appreciated enough. An era that gave us Scream, Braindead, Hardware, It, Nightbreed, The Blair Witch Project and other lesser loved bits of horror cinema such as Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain, Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, among many other titles. Particularly with Craven’s Scream there was a new renewal in the studios’ interests to cater towards the youth market. Not that they ever stopped. Yet The Craft is a coming-of-age tale, wrapped up in the fantasy of witchcraft and packaged in a neatly bowed horror romp. And while this definitely comes off as a movie marketed towards teenagers, looking back on it 20 years later it’s more than just a teen horror flick. Inside the story of four witches who come together during high school there are themes of good, evil, innocence, guilt, and plenty of other interesting subjects. With a solid cast in the four main women this horror goes further than being relegated to being a horror ‘chick flick’ or a movie better left back in adolescence. Director Andrew Fleming’s first film was the trippy 1988 horror Bad Dreams, but after The Craft he really abandoned horror for comedy and television mostly. Too bad. Because between those two horrors he has a talent for the macabre. This story of four young witches is better than a casual movie to give you a little creep, it has lots of terror to offer, making high school appear even more violent, volatile and nerve wracking than it has been since Carrie.
Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) and her family move to a new city. She’s had plenty of tragedy in life, as her mother is dead and her father tries his best to raise a teenage girl. Things get intense once Sarah meets three girls rumoured to be witches – Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True), and their fiesty little leader Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk). Slowly, the young women come together in a quartet and finally realize all their collective powers, summoned from the deep darkness.
What follows begins as a group of friends exploring their natural talents, an antiquated power in a modern world.
However, soon enough the ugly head of competition appears, and Nancy doesn’t like that Sarah’s powers are stronger than the other girls. And this sets off a deadly series of events which Sarah must either stop, or be swept up in. Is her power truly the strongest? Or does Nancy hold the full power of the occult and Hell at her fingertips?
The theme of outsiders is clearly central here. And it’s all amped up even more. First, you’ve got a group of teenage girls; from boys to interpersonal relationships to the general race of high school to win popularity and acceptance. Then they’re also witches, sitting on the fringe of society, both as a whole and in the microcosm of grade school. Plus, there’s periods, and mean boys, and mean girls. Added to all of that, each of the main girls has their own issue. Nancy (Balk) is poor, dealing with a stepfather whose interests lie a little too close to his wife’s daughter. Rochelle (True) is black and has to face the ignorant racism of a lily white girl that says she doesn’t “like negroids.” Bonnie (Campbell) has scar tissue all over her body, it makes her self-conscious and the treatments to try curing her are extremely painful. Finally, Sarah (Tunney) laments the death of her mother, and it’s obvious she’s filled with dark, sometimes suicidal thoughts. So part of why The Craft touched me deeply, as a drama mixed with horror, is because we’re essentially watching four young women who want to escape from their dreary reality. They want something better, something bigger, and they get it. How many of us didn’t want to make the bullies at school pay? Well here we live vicariously through Rochelle, whose spell makes the popular blonde girl’s hair start falling out, and through Sarah who puts a heavy love spell on a guy that spread dirty rumours about her, and so on. Each of their experiences brings to light the experience of many as young people, as students, as growing men and women in the world. I saw this movie when I was about 11 and it spoke to me because I was a weird kid, one that stood as part of a group that didn’t play hockey or weren’t the cool kids, so seeing these four witches go through their own experiences, it simultaneously spoke to my own feelings as a loser or an outcast. This is a major reason why The Craft‘s fans are hardcore, loving ones, because this isn’t only a fantastical horror flick about young witches, it has a heart and like many awesome horror movies there is more than meets the eye.
Let’s face it – the cast would’ve never been so iconic and exciting if these four ladies weren’t in the film. As an antagonist, Balk’s Nancy Downs is perfect. She is beautiful and weird, then also terrifying at the same time. She can switch on a dime from being sort of cute in an oddball way to becoming overwhelmingly horrific. Part of why her charater works is because Balk has a unique look. So with all her charisma and energy, she brings a wildness to the cast. In addition, Balk is an actual Wiccan, so she provided insight during the filming when possible. Our protagonist is equally wonderful. Tunney’s Sarah is a calm, quiet type, and after she becomes involved with the other girls develops a more outgoing personality. Tunney provides a relateable personality to which we can anchor ourselves going forward, and she allows us a type of center. We latch onto her because of her problems. Then once the witchcraft stuff spirals out of control at the hands of Nancy, there’s a very good v. evil vibe because of Sarah portraying the near polar opposite character. With these two actresses at the helm, alongside Campbell and True as sidekicks, as well as 90s staple Skeet Ulrich in a decent little supporting role that adds fire to the plot, The Craft is a step above many of the other youth-marketed movies during the decade because of its stellar acting.
The finale of the film is perhaps my favourite. Because everything devolves so quickly, then a real horrorshow takes place. Like a fever dream filled to the brim by witchcraft and jealousy and youthful rage.
With a nice finish, and plenty of eeriness along the way, The Craft is most definitely, in my books, a 4-star flick. It has dark fantasy, moody teen issues, heavy themes, a knockout cast, and ends with an unsettling ride. In a decade that has many underappreciated works of horror cinema, the 1990s provided us with one of the better movies on witchcraft out there. Too many will try and discredit the film, saying it’s a ‘safe’ teen horror. There’s nothing safe about this one, though. Tackling everything from suicide to race to rape to teen angst, The Craft stands its ground as a contemporary piece of horror with a razor sharp set of teeth.