REVIEW: The Craft [1996]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: May 3rd, 1996 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director(s): Andrew Fleming
Writer(s): Peter Filardi and Andrew Fleming / Peter Filardi (story)

“Nothing makes everything all better again”

There’s a ton of untapped potential in Andrew Fleming‘s The Craft. It delivers four embattled teenage girls faced with tragic circumstances out of their control who seek to empower themselves against the internal and external struggles presented by them. This is a premise that allows for empathy and understanding because they each know what it’s like to be on the other side of nightmare. Maybe their acquisition of powers through the occult will present a period of dominance as a knee-jerk reaction to going from having nothing to having everything, but they should dial it back once they see the pain they’ve wrought. If their strength evolves from its initial delight-fueled mischief to compassionate benevolence, the film could prove a worthwhile metaphor for maturity. Sadly it never does.

I’m not deluded to the fact that this decision by Fleming and original screenwriter Peter Filardi has made the movie a “cult classic.” It’s fun to laugh at the insanity that goes on and the unhinged manic evil of coven leader Nancy (Fairuza Balk). Learning a lesson or accepting the notion that privilege has the power to make even the kindest soul a monster would subvert the over-the-top excess arriving in its stead. And that’s okay if the finished product wholly embraced that surface level reading. But that’s not the case here. For some reason the filmmakers still appear to want the lesson to come across despite doing everything they can to marginalize it. You can’t let a character show pity one scene and then malevolence the next.

This is exactly what happens, though. While Nancy, Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True) are all very much into witchcraft and desire the reverse food chain that will result from their gaining full strength with a fourth, they aren’t necessarily villains. By asking us to sympathize with them—Nancy is a product of poverty who lives in a trailer with her mother and abusive step-father; Bonnie’s body is covered in scar tissue as a result of an unknown accident; and Rochelle is the victim of rampant racism—we allow them the room to grow. Not only that, we want to see that growth. So it’s commendable when Rochelle asks her “God” Manon for her attacker (Christine Taylor‘s Laura) to love her and herself to love her back.

And despite our laughter when the spell makes Laura’s hair fall out in a bid to instill the humility necessary for her to stop being racist, we see a sorrow in Rochelle’s eyes. There’s an understanding on her face whenever she’s approached by the coven’s aforementioned fourth too—new girl (post-suicide attempt) Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney). The same can be said about Bonnie, her soft-spoken shyness evaporating once her spell to remove the scarring provides her the confidence to be a sexual creature. Yes she becomes a narcissistic bully, but she still seems to know Sarah’s voice of reason opposite Nancy’s cruelty is correct. Except this is a lie for her and Rochelle. They really are horrible remorseless people we’ve spent 90-minutes getting duped into thinking the opposite.

Don’t tell me that my expectations colored this disappointment either because there are very blatant moments where we are meant to believe Bonnie and Rochelle have hearts. Whether or not these are remnants of a previous script or not, the instances work against the overall ruthless tone wherein everyone is out for him/herself besides Sarah. It results in a shift from the fun dark comedy of these girls reveling in the payback they enact to a pitch-black good versus evil battle of the utmost severity. People start dying and the perpetrators get more and more vicious as though Manon is taking hold. But even that reading is rendered moot when we learn Manon doesn’t approve of the bad things Nancy does in his name. So what’s the point?

I’m not sure an answer to this question exists. Some victims turn evil. Some victims learn their lesson. Some people die for no reason other than propelling the plot forward. And some interactions turn on a dime so that a tear-streaked Sarah being hugged by Rochelle jumps to Rochelle trying to kill Sarah without even the smallest attempt to explain the change. So while the start of The Craft is extremely entertaining in a way that explains audience’s nostalgic love—especially Skeet Ulrich‘s sexist pig turned doting puppy dog—the end arrives as though a completely different movie. All complexity is excised so that we rally behind Sarah and yearn for Nancy’s death. Our investment in the characters is ignored so they can serve an anticlimactic climax’s goals.

We never learn about Sarah’s witchcraft birthright or her deceased mother and the idea—posited by enigmatic occult shop owner turned Glinda the Good Witch complete with white dress (Assumpta Serna‘s Lirio)—that she was a witch too. So many details are thrown yet none stick because Fleming and company has nothing to say. All they want is for Sarah to embrace her power for the right reasons like Nancy does the wrong and pit them against each other. And since Sarah’s afraid of turning evil, she pushes against that urge. Suddenly this film that was about four girls traversing the volatile landscape of high school becomes an origin story that goes nowhere for the newcomer. Either Sarah’s journey is incomplete or it was never worth our time.


Watched in conjunction with Season Three of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.

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