I got a bit nostalgic the other night and decided to go dumpster-diving in the nineties by re-watching The Craft. I was curious to see how it stood up since I first watched it, which would have been when I was about eleven, when the whole witchcraft thing was very much in vogue. (As testified to by Willow, Charmed, and every single Yahoo! Chat user profile.)
Plot-wise The Craft is a little uninspiring, but not disastrously so. Sarah (Robin Tunney) has just moved to LA with her family, making her the 'new girl' at a preppy Catholic high school. On her first day, she accidentally reveals that she has supernatural powers, gets hit-on by the high school heart-throb, is befriended by the local weirdos, and gets accosted by a snake-wielding homeless guy (who is promptly run-down by a truck). In many ways it's very Mary Sue – Sarah is shy, precocious, misunderstood, gifted and desirable – but if this is a crime then it's one many films are guilty of.
The real problem of The Craft is that it maintains little logical continuity between its scenes. After her first day of school, Sarah goes to watch Chris (the heartthrob, played by Skeet Ulrich) at football practice, but the three wannabe-witches, lead by Nancy (Fairuza Bulk), entice her away. Sarah gets freaked-out when they start talking about witchcraft, though, and decides to split, but somehow ends up hanging out on a roof with Chris at midnight. This is a time before cellphones, so she couldn't have texted him to find out where he was, and she's only just arrived in town, so she wouldn't know any the haunts of the local high-school kids. But she winds up hanging out with him on a roof because the plot requires it. And, as it goes, 'because plot' is the justification for just about everything that happens in this film.
Take the two 'side-character' witches, Bonnie (Neve Campbell of Party of Five) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Bonnie has burn scars all over her back, shoulders and arms, so she hides behind long-sleeved clothing. She is shy and reclusive, and so desperate to be rid of her disfigurement that she is willing to undergo a painful and experimental medical procedure to lift them. For her, magic offers her a way to fix something about her body that she hates, so that she can interact with the world on her own terms – a motivation that most of us can easily identify with. And, when she is ultimately healed of her scars, her behaviour is all fairly reasonable: she wears sleeveless tops, becomes more outgoing, and bashfully accepts compliments from the boys at her school. Her most scandalous behaviour is to tell an older man he has a "nice ass" (for which her friends tell her that she's a slut and that she's become "completely narcissistic").
Rochelle, meanwhile, is a competitive diver who is tormented by the evil racist Barbie on her team, Lizzie (Christine Taylor), who "just doesn't like negroids, sorry.” (It was apparently okay to be this overtly racist back in the nineties, you just had to be selective about which 'n-word' you used.) But what does Rochelle want from magic? "The ability to not hate those who hate me." Her politics are portrayed to be so resolutely non-threatening that she makes Daria's Jodie Landon look like Malcolm X. She doesn't even attempt to use magic to get revenge on Lizzie, and it is Sarah who casts a protective ward on Rochelle which, when it is broken, causes Lizzie to go bald. But even then, Rochelle still has the decency to be appalled at the development. In fact, the film does so little to examine Rochelle's motivations that we never get a sense for why she is practicing magic, let alone hanging out with these girls in the first place.
Rochelle and Bonnie ultimately become second-order villains, though, because the plot requires it of them for the climatic confrontation where they turn on Sarah. Why do they do this? We're not given any clues, they just seem to go along with it. Perhaps just so the narrative can punish them, because how else would we know that female sexuality, or non-confrontational and nearly non-existent race politics, are wrong?
If the film has any lasting impact it is because of Nancy, leader of the 'bitches of Eastwick', who almost redeems the film. If Sarah is the innocent who leads us into the world of witchcraft and magic, Nancy represents the dark possibilities which that world has to offer. She is the 'unknown' the audience is invited to fear, but also a compelling character in her own right. Whereas Sarah comes from a wealthy family and is naturally talented, Nancy is detested 'trailer-trash' who got where she was by hard work – it is obvious from her home-life that she would not even be attending the school if she wasn't there on a scholarship. Everything Sarah got by birthright, Nancy has to fight for, and that she gets a bad end is just further testament to the conservative nature of this film. Because, really, all the girls use magic for is to get what Sarah already has: beauty, in the case of Bonnie; acceptance, in the case of Rochelle; and, well, wealth, security and talent, in the case of Nancy. But what the film tells us is that if you're not born with those things then you don't get to have them: that any sort of aspiration to reach a better place in life betrays an indecent and unnatural lack of modesty.
The ending of the film is a bunch of silly horror malarky. Pulsating masses of maggots coming out of the toilet, snakes crawling up the stairs, and cockroaches skittering out through the vents. At one point, Sarah gets her wrists cut, but it's obvious from the blood-loss that it was barely a surface wound, and the drama goes all pantomime once she faces off against Nancy. There was a better film buried in here, though: one where the main characters were better developed, so that the choices they made were an organic extension of their personalities and their confrontations actually made sense. Instead we got a cautionary tale about teenagers messing with scary stuff, and getting punished for it, without much examination of what drove their actions.
It's not all grim, though. The soundtrack is great, the fashion is fun, and there are a few subtle effects choices which hold up pretty well (the one with the pencil is particularly good). And the performances, particularly from Faulk, drag this fairly unambitious film up to the level of something worthy of another look. (If only for the awesome bus-driver scene, which you can check out below in the trailer.) As it stands, though, the film is more potential than delivery.