#31DOH Day 28: The Craft (1996)

* This review contains spoilers.

During the 1990s there was a rash of teen orientated horror movies full of bright young things proliferating across both cinema screens and our televisions. There were the film and TV versions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Scream franchise, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and today’s subject – The Craft.

The Craft was a short sharp yet astute teenage movie that focused on four teenage girls who each had their own particular issues that left them on the edge of society. Bullying, racism, alcoholic parenting and attempted suicide all factor into the psyche of this disenfranchised group. It went a little deeper than the slick humour horror of the Scream films and gave us characters that you could feel sorry for, even as you knew they were making horrible decisions or being brutally cruel.

Deep in the heart of many teenage girls who have ever been the recipient of bullying behaviour lurks a small kernel of fury, looking for revenge. The Craft gives us this, with the mantra running through that whatever you give out will be returned threefold. Our girls find themselves through opening themselves up to witchcraft – but are not perhaps prepared for the forces they unleash.

The Bitches of Eastwick

So-called by their classmates, the film opens with three teenagers holding a magical ritual. These are Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie, social misfits who appear bound together for no reason other than all are social outcasts. The casting here is brilliant – Fairuza Balk is now immortalized as ring-leader Nancy, and for good reason. She manages to combine the extreme swings of emotions that teenagers experience – in turn cruel, bitter, jealous. But she is also empathetic, particularly in one scene where she is sitting with a visibly upset Bonnie.

A shy, softly spoken Neve Campbell portrays Bonnie, hiding her horrendous scars as she undergoes treatment that causes untold pain. She uses her hair as a shield in public. This resonated so much. The curtain, the veil that protects a vulnerable, damaged person from the scrutiny of others.

Rachel True portrays the diving team athlete Rochelle, bullied by her team members for being black. The insults distress her, put her off her game, and she is particularly affected by comments from the blond ice queen, Laura.

Together they seek to form a witches’ circle, to protect themselves, and also seeking power. Power over the forces in their lives that adversely affect them, like Nancy’s poverty. The circle is incomplete, they require a forth elemental pillar.

In steps Sarah. Beautiful, damaged Sarah, played with conviction by Robin Tunney. Her family has relocated to Los Angeles after her suicide attempt, and she’s the new witch at school, targeted from the first day by the circle, and also by the unscrupulous man tart Chris (Skeet Ulrich).

“This is the time, ours is the Power”

Sarah’s arrival is a catalyst for the circle to form, for the witches to find solace and strength working together against the people that would bring them down. The effects are low budget, but the dialogue and the settings against nature are very effective at showing how the girls at first seek nothing more than acceptance and healing, before turning much darker.

The girls seek gifts – for Sarah, it’s to punish Chris for lying about her. Bonnie wants perfect skin, Rochelle to revisit back three-fold any racist abuse she receives from her dive teammates. Nancy wants more, she wants strength, wealth and power.

There’s charm in the scenes where they begin to test their powers, finding a sisterhood in pyjamas as they chant ‘Light as a feather, stiff as a board’.

There’s Something About Nancy

Nancy brings the screen to life every time that wonderful, expressive face appears. The infamous wicked smile, the wet look PVC, neck hung with multiple gothic chains – she spawned a legion of goth girl fans who continue to this day to emulate her look. Her quips adorn everything from socks, t-shirts to mugs, particularly ‘We are the weirdoes, Mister’.

Nancy sees the other circle members receiving their gifts and becomes frustrated by the lack of response to her own wish to move out of poverty. She takes the girls on a beach trip where she invokes the spirit of Manon, the Divine Creator and patron of witchcraft. Filled with his power she causes havoc, losing control of any empathy she might have shown earlier and embarking on a destructive path.

Nancy becomes a monster, but there’s a reason so many identify with her character. She’s been dragged up in extreme poverty, with a feckless mother who fails to pay her bills. She steals what she wants, because she can’t afford to pay for it. When she can, it becomes an odd point of pride to her. She wants to be wanted – and when she isn’t she becomes consumed by jealousy that warps who she is, and where she takes us.

Butterflies, Budgies, Clownfish & Snakes Oh MY!

This film was shot on a $15million dollar shoestring, so makes use of some simple effects in place of CGI. This works – subtle touches like the use of verses of Genesis in the school chapel, intoning ‘Do not eat of the tree of knowledge’, at the very moment that the girls are flexing their new power muscles and giggling over the subjugation of Chris.

When tasting their powers we see butterflies coming down in a blessing. Snakes are used in shadow to build tension, highlighted against glass roof lights. Nature is the main special effect – lighting on the water, dead sharks on the beach. This plays very well with the witch theme, of getting back to nature and calling on the elements to give power.

An Enduring Call

On re-watch, The Craft stands up to time thanks to the excellent performances from the leads. It has charm, pathos, empathy in spades, underscored by the desperate need of teenagers to find their place and to challenge the bullies who seek to keep them down. It gave Fairuza Balk immortality as Nancy, with many fans wondering what happened to her after the credits rolled.

Perhaps 2020 will bring them their answer – a sequel is now in pre-production. There’s a great spoof trailer available to watch here as we await news on how the sequel will shape up, or whether any of the original cast will be in it:

As Nancy says in the fake trailer, ‘Payback’s a witch, I mean bitch’.

Now Is the End, Let Her Go In Peace

In conclusion, The Craft feels like The Lost Boys’ girl child in execution, with that same draw of attractive outcasts with powers taking on the world (or Los Angeles, for starters). It’s a good Halloween watch for teenagers – while visually it screams 1990s, it has instantly relatable characters, an emotional depth and enough sass to remain engaging.

Settle back, Nancy socks on. Invoke the spirit.

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