Film discussion

The Craft (1996) – Teen Movie Rewind

In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.

A tale of witchcraft centred around female characters, and with a cover version of The Smith’s ‘How Soon is Now’ on the soundtrack. Nope, this is not Charmed. Released into cinemas in 1996, The Craft was considered something of a disposable slice of teen horror hokum and was greeted accordingly from the majority of male critics who either didn’t appreciate a purely female-led horror film or were ambivalent towards the horror genre in general.

One of the great things about movies is when they’re written off upon release and yet find love and affection as the years and decades past. Sometimes, it genuinely feels like a movie can never truly be judged on an opening weekend and it’s best to leave it for a while and let it cook a little until a real assessment can be given.

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So it is with The Craft. Audiences were quicker to realise that there was something special about it, and while a $55 million worldwide box office gross may not be the largest take, it did so against a budget of $15 million making it a profitable hit. It was ripe for discovery on video in 1996, where it found an even larger audience and has continued to inspire a following of fans who appreciate it massively, very much becoming a cult film.

The combination of teen characters and horror have always had a wonderful ability to go hand in hand. The seventies and eighties in particular had seen an influx of horrors that put teenage protagonists front and centre. While there had been a massive amount of slasher films, many of which took inspiration from Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas and, most famously of all, John Carpenter’s Halloween, there had also been Brian De Palma’s double whammy of telekinetic teens in his film version of Stephen King’s Carrie, and much more elaborate John Farris adaptation The Fury (complete with the greatest explosion in movie history).

The 80s had combined elements of fantasy to coming-of-age tales to commercial and creative success, and there was even room for less fantastic but more satirical approaches to teen films, with Heathers daring to poke fun at the aesthetics of the John Hughes productions with a daringly dark and subversive tone.

The Craft is maybe never as subversive a film as Heathers, but they make for a strangely brilliant double bill given their themes of teens on a darker path than you would find in other films with teenage protagonists, along with stories involving peer pressure and bullying and having their outcast characters take vengeance on those who have wronged them. Heathers took those ideas and ran with them in an increasingly surreal and satirical fashion, while The Craft adds a potent mix of horror and the supernatural to its revenge themes.

Interestingly, many horror movies with teen protagonists had put female characters front and centre. The most famous trope of slasher movies had been the ‘final girl’ and amongst The Craft‘s cast was Neve Campbell who would go on to be the 90s definitive ‘final girl’ when she starred in Wes Craven’s Scream which also made its way into cinemas in 1996. The Craft was led by Robin Tunney as Sarah, a new girl arriving in LA and who immediately falls into the circle of a group of female friends who practice witchcraft.

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For two-thirds of the running time, the film plays with an element of wish fulfilment, as Sarah and her new friends Bonnie (Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel Blue) and Nancy (a scene-stealing Fairuza Balk) take full advantage of their powers to get one over on the school jock (another pre-Scream actor in Skeet Ulrich) who slut-shames Sarah after she refuses to sleep with him, as well as getting back at the racist bully who makes life hell for Rochelle.

The film has a dark spark to it that is magnificently entertaining, especially when one is twelve years old in 1996. It still remains so, but when one is older, there is a fundamental issue that is hard to shake when watching it.

Remakes are great when they work, but more often than not they come about because Hollywood has run out of ideas and are just trying to cash in on a previous success because studio executives know they will make money from it. The Craft remake that is in the works could very easily be that, but there is a potential to do something more interesting behind the scenes with the script.

While there is no doubt that The Craft is a wonderful film, it is still a film written and directed by men. What’s even more annoying is that while the final act of the film is a wonderful slice of horror and supernatural incident, with some effective use of special and visual effects, it still opts to have Sarah’s friends turn on her after having been the victims of bullying themselves.

Balk plays Nancy as a character on the edge right from the moment we meet her, but it might have been more interesting if the film could have given the four of them a common enemy to fight against as opposed to being corrupted by the power they gain. It still makes for a great film and there is plenty of suspense to be had in the film’s final set-piece, but what makes the prospect of any potential remake interesting (and it’s coming from Blumhouse which means we could be in for something better than most remakes) is that it’s set to be directed by a female filmmaker, Zoe Lister-Jones.

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As for the original, obvious narrative and character directions aside, it still works wonders. The journey to that final act is a wonderful character-driven genre piece that really makes one feel for these characters and their pain (which makes the final descent into villainy all the more disappointing). That the film has only become more popular in recent years is a lovely bit of revenge against critics who wrote it off upon its premiere.

For a film about dark magic, it has a spell of its own, a combination of great characters and a gothic atmosphere that continues to make it not only a brilliant piece of cult cinema from the 90s, but genuinely one of the most enjoyable horror films of the decade.

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