The Craft (1996)

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“We are the weirdos mister.” Ahhh.

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It’s possible I pay too much attention to Rotten Tomatoes on this blog, but The Craft has a paltry 50%. A wrong that must be righted.

I may be biased by 90s nostalgia. I played ‘light as a feather, thick as a board’ because of this film, I still love plaid and Portishead, and this film is imprinted on me. Guilty as charged.

But The Craft is a classic of the teen movie genre. More specifically, the film comfortably inhabits the subgenre of dark comedies about high school vengeance, feeling at times like a rework of Heathers. But while Heathers is the funniest of this subgenre, The Craft is a more complex portrayal of teen friendships.

Writer-director Andrew Fleming is one of Hollywood’s unsung stars, an unpretentiously witty writer, most famously penning the Nixon-era comedy Dick.

Plot time: very white, very middle-class Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) newly arrives in Los Angeles. Sarah presumably left behind a gated suburb for this harsh urban surrounding (Fleming would repeat this setup for his adaptation of Nancy Drew, opting to make the lead a fish-out-of-water rather than sticking with the suburban setting of the book series).

Her family’s reverse-white-flight leaves Sarah isolated, in a Catholic school marked by the extreme hierarchies typical of the teen movie genre (US friends tell me the caricatured cliques of such portrayals are actually pretty accurate; they were unrecognisable based on my experience of a liberal NZ high school).

Sarah soon falls in with the reviled ‘Bitches of Eastwick’, a coven led by Uber-Goth Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk, easily the most entertaining performance of the film), along with Bonnie Hyper (Neve Campbell, the film’s most prominent star), and Rochelle Zimmerman (Rachel True, sharing the trajectory into Hollywood obscurity that most of the cast followed after this film).

Sarah completes the witches’ magic circle, setting off a moralistic tale of hubris. Rochelle seeks revenge against a racist preppy; Bonnie overcomes her physical deformity; good-girl Sarah only wants the love of a cute boy; and Fairuza Balk’s Sarah uh, Sarah just wants unlimited power.

Before the tide turns on the leads, the descent into a dark power-trip has undeniable pleasures. A decent soundtrack peaks with the lovely Scorn remix of Portishead’s 90s classic Glory Box.

Balk’s revanchism ‘goes too far’ with a brilliant scene in which she murders popular sleaze Skeet Ulrich (warning: this follows from a frank depiction of attempted rape). Balk (perhaps accidentally) echoes the hero of Nightmare on Elm Street in telling Ulrich “You are nothing! You are shit”, and finally screaming “HE’S SORRY! HE’S SORRY! SORRY MY ASS” with a force that blows him out a window. Gold.

Of course, any Hollywood witch movie can’t avoid a bit of silliness, and this film does its best to offend neopagans by dichotomising a Dark Witch (Fairuza Balk) with a White Witch (Robin Tunney). The tale of revenge-gone-too-far spirals into a climactic battle of magic.

While caricatured, this climax has some value as a portrayal of toxic teen relationships. Kids (not to mention adults) genuinely can be that cruel, knowing exactly what buttons to push, in this case consciously bullying Sarah into attempted suicide. I’m sure many people can relate to Sarah’s experience of being turned out of the coven, and suddenly seeing their cruelty from outside.

Although middle-class good girl Sarah’s final smackdown of the misandrist trailer-park Goth has uncomfortable connotations, it’s also a necessary personal move given the weaponised guilt of such a toxic relationship. This harsh portrayal of cutting loose also feels more plausible than the utopian ending of say, Mean Girls.

Overall, an ambivalent depiction of teen friendships gone south, wrapped up in enjoyable schlock.

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