The Craft Review (1996)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

The Craft Review (1996)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on July 17th, 2018 | Movie Review | Cult Classic, Drama, Teen, Witchcraft

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It’s about a high school coven of witches who explore their magical powers until their dangerous stunts get out of hand.

The Craft was directed by Andrew Fleming (who also directed Bad Dreams) and stars Robin Tunney (from Supernova), Fairuza Balk  and Neve Campbell  (from Scream).

Welcome to the witching hour.

The Craft Review

The plot in a fast thumbnail sketch:

Sarah (Robin Tunney) is the new girl in town, attending school (a Catholic school of course, whatever did we do for horror before they invented that religion?) where she meets up with the local outcast clique of Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True). They used to play at witchcraft, but now with Sarah on board they discover witch powers for realsies. A power struggle for control of their coven ensues between alpha-badass Nancy and good witch of the north Sarah. Then things get crazy and then really crazy.

What doesn’t work?

The Craft is such a widely loved favorite in horror fandom that we’re going upside-down with this review so we can get its downsides out of the way first. Here they are: The movie is inextricably stuck in the 1990s, though it’s quite the period piece now. Despite the official pan-religious experts on hand, you’ll still find the occasional occult devotee who bristles at mention of this movie. Some of the CGI is dated now, though an impressive amount of it also manages to look better than movies put out this year, too. The big flaw everybody points out is that while the rest of the cast gets heavy development, Bonnie and Rochelle might as well be cardboard cutouts with paper dresses hopping around.

That’s it, we’re pretty much done with the downsides. Now let’s ask why this is a brilliant masterpiece!

One of the greatest horror movie villains ever!

Sweet panting Moses, is there anything Fairuza Balk can’t do? She steals this movie and sprints over the horizon with it balanced on her nose. The rest of the acting is what would be considered “good” to “great,” if you could remember anything but the character of Nancy Downs. Her mouth is big enough to lip-lock Mick Jagger. Her eyebrows could tie Nicholas Cage’s eyebrows in shibari knots. She appears to be made out of pure light bulb filaments, every second crackling with new wavelengths Tesla never discovered. She bellows in rage, wails in grief, slithers in seduction, and goes mad as a March hare. Some critics consider her too hammy. Me, if you ask me who played the Joker better, Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, I’m going to say Fairuza Balk in The Craft played the best Joker. Never mind the animated Jokers; what artist can compete with the real, live, breathing cartoon character of Fairuza Balk?

She’s a heavy reason why this movie is a cult classic. Just Google “Nancy Downs” and “fan fiction” and, um, be sure you’re not at work, if you get my drift.

But outside of the actress, the character herself is one of the most sharply drawn villains in horror. At first she seems over the top with her obvious sadism, thirst for power, and egomaniac temper, but then you get a whiff of her childhood and every character quirk falls perfectly into place. Her character justification makes her scarier, because instead of a mindless psychopath drone or a comic-book megalomaniac bent on taking over the world, you feel Nancy’s rage. You can see the gears turning in her head. The only thing more dreadful than to be tortured by a powerful monster is knowing just how justified she feels in doing it.

Not to mention that her chief target, Sarah, has a back-story of suicidal behavior, which Nancy gleefully exploits by showing her how easy it would be to make her death look like a suicide. This is another twist of the terror knife: a villain whom you not only know, but knows you from the inside out. Only an hour in movie-time before, they were sprawled in a slumber party trading girlie gossip. The rivalry between Nancy and Sarah is intimate and personal, making the violence between them that much more jolting.

Black Magic done right for once:

One of the showcase facets of The Craft is its imaginative portrayal of magic powers. We have to give a fiction lesson first to explain why:

There’s the pet name I have for this factor, called “The Imagination Ceiling.” It’s very difficult for we mere mortals to conceive of how a being with reality-warping levels of power would actually think. We’ve all seen examples - wizards, genies, god-like beings, superheroes - of characters who have these phenomenal cosmic powers but when we see them in action it’s a letdown, because they just do one puny boring thing. Recall the Gandalf-vs.-Saruman fight in Lord of the Rings; all they do is throw force fields at each other for a couple rounds. Sure, it’s cool, but wouldn’t it have been satisfying to see them lob just one fireball? For that matter, fans are still asking if Gandalf had giant eagles at his command, why didn’t he just deliver The Ring to Mordor via air express?

The Craft blows the Imagination Ceiling to bits. When these witches fight, they fight DIRTY! And they use every trick you can imagine: cursing each other to look old and decrepit, turning fingers into snakes, flooding rooms with bugs, shape-shifting into mirrors, flying, making a lightning bolt snap a branch off a tree, turning into clones of each other, anything and everything all happening at a thrilling pace. For once you see people with magical powers having a no-holds-barred ass-kicking contest. Other reviewers at the time complained that The Craft was too reliant on special effects; I’m over here wondering why doesn’t every movie do this? I came to the witch movie to see witches doing witchy stuff! Don’t worry, if I want A Tale of Two Cities I know where to find it.

This movie changed the rules

Compared to the present day, how ironic is that complaint about The Craft being too reliant on CGI in 1996? How about the mandatory R rating because the MPAA insisted if you have kids and witchcraft in the same movie, it must be rated R, context be damned? Only years later a certain whole school would come along where kids learn witchcraft, called “Hogwarts Academy.” For that matter, throw a dart at the Disney film canon - thwack, Bedknobs and Broomsticks - and ask where was their R rating? Looking back, doesn’t the MPAA sound dumb as cheese? Or maybe what really got under their wigs was that witches were OK as long as they were hook-nosed hags trying to make off with Dorothy’s slippers, but for God’s sake don’t show actual Pagan rituals performed with the consultation of real Pagan experts! We have Judeo-Christian values to enforce over here.

While there were many contemporary witch stories in film before, with 1987‘s The Witches of Eastwick being a prime example, The Craft still managed to kick over some Ouiji boards and shuffle the Tarot deck for occult-themed fiction for years to come. The rest of the ‘90s were practically the witch-happy decade. And it definitely opened the door to greater CGI use in movies, as well as high fantasy becoming mainstream fare for adults. This was the point where Wiccans, Pagans, and other occult practitioners came out of the closet - from now on, they proudly wore their pentagram jewelry to work and dared you to say something about it.

We should stop here and compare it to other occult horror movies, but... oh, there really isn’t anything close. If anything, Carrie is closer to The Craft than any other movie - arguably you have high school and a girl with magic powers, and even there the resemblance ends. We’ve had oodles of teen high school dramas and a gazillion witch movies that were Bewitched for the big screen, but only The Craft had the alchemy to mix the two. Suspiria and The VVitch both have witches in them, but from a completely different part of town. The Craft spawned a flock of imitators, notably the TV series Charmed, and that’s as close as you get.

Still a potent brew at age 22!

And you can front-load it with all the goody-two-shoes talk you want about how The Craft is a metaphor for female empowerment, it’s a refreshing pan-religious mark of social progress, it’s a brilliant parody of high school politics, it passes the Bechdel test, whatever your hobby horse is. If that’s what helps you sleep at night, I’m not going to take it away from you. I just don’t think we need all that book-learnin’ to justify this movie. It’s a greasy, salty, lip-smackingly guilty pleasure to devour with no shame by the incriminating light of the fridge at 2 AM.

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