A couple of things were popular in the late nineties. The sudden success of "Scream" made horror movies not only popular again but hip for the first time in years. Suddenly, the genre that had been masked madmen hacking up teens for a decade had to have sharp scripts and realistic, in-the-know protagonists. Around the same time, a rising awareness of new age pagan religions made "witch" a hot buzzword. Witches weren't green-skinned, cackling hags anymore. They could be normal people. These two interests intersected with "The Craft," a poppy teen and femme-oriented horror flick that attempted to bring the witch concept into the present day.
Set at a catholic school in fashionable California, the film follows Sarah, a girl with a history of mental problems, who has just moved into town. She's quickly dubbed an outcast and befriends a trio of other strange girls: The gothy Nancy, the shy Bonnie, and teased Rochelle. The three girls fancy themselves witches, in the neo-pagan sense of the word, and think Sarah might be the fourth corner of their circle. The fourth girls quickly excel at magic, using their abilities to better their high school lives. However, things quickly get out of hand, especially thanks to the unbalanced Nancy, and the girls start to turn on each other.
"The Craft" is notable for focusing on female characters, a rare feat in any genre but horror especially. The girls aren't your typical horror film victims. Instead, the script makes the effort to get inside each one's head. Nancy and the others are at the bottom of the high social ladder. Nancy's Gothic fashion seems to be in response to her home life, with a trashy mother and an abusive stepfather. Boys tell lies about her at school and her interest in witchcraft steams from a rather literal desire to take back control of her life. Bonnie's body is covered in burns, leading to her shyness. Rochelle's ethnicity makes her a target for bullying from the school's resident queen bee. When their power grows, they naturally use their abilities to improve their lives. Who can blame them? "The Craft" tries to frame itself as a story about responsibilities, how power corrupts etcetera, but the film is far more successful in its early half when the premise is played for wish-fulfillment.
That's mostly due to the mostly strong cast. The movie made Fairuza Balk, who previously had experiences with witches in "Return to Oz" and "The Worst Witch," something of a cult icon. She's the center of the film and gives a powerhouse performance. Nancy is burning with fear and pain, all of it exploding out as righteous anger. While the script isn't beyond playing her outburst as typical teenage angst, Balk deepens the role, making Nancy a real human being. Neve Campbell develops some honest anguish over her condition and, when she heals herself, has fun tramping it up. Rachel True works well as the first of the girls to notice they might have gone too far.
The three are strong enough that they completely overshadow Robin Tunney as lead character Sarah. Tunney isn't bad but she's also playing the least interesting character in the film. While Nancy is speeding a car through red lights, magically changing them to green, Sarah is chastising them, like a real fuddy-duddy. Clearly, the other girls go too far, especially once they become murderous, but you can't deny they're having more fun. Making the hero so comparatively uninteresting is "The Craft's" biggest problem.
The style of "The Craft" immediately marks it as a product of the late nineties. The soundtrack is filled out with quasi-pop punk that was quasi-popular at the time, like Sponge, Heather Nova, Letters to Cleo, and Love Spit Love, whose cover of "How Soon is Now" would later be used as the theme song for witch-centric TV show "Charmed." Andrew Fleming directs with rock-video smoothness, only occasionally overdoing it, like during Fairuza's murderous freak-out or a flying nightmare. The film's digital effects, which include morphing a girl's fingers into snakes, got a lot of press at the time. They come off as very dated today. The intensity the final witches duel produces has more to do with Fairuza's crazed acting then the melodramatic direction or cheesy effects.
"The Craft" became a sleeper hit upon release, meaning that its story and themes resonated with an audience. The film, no doubt, led to a rise in interest in witchcraft and neo-paganism. It also, probably, led to hip witch characters being a common character on supernatural soaps like "Buffy" and "Charmed." The film holds up astonishingly well, mostly thanks to its excellent cast and decently structured screenplay.
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