Now is the time. This is the hour. Ours is the magic. Ours is the power. Now is the time. This is the hour. Ours is the magic. Ours is the power. On the weekend of May 3rd, 1996, The Craft released nationwide and ended at number one for the weekend. Grossing nearly 56 million worldwide against a budget of 15, the financial success was evident despite the critical tenor not being so.
Through a combination of it being looked at under a different societal lens compared to the one it was originally released in and perhaps just having younger people putting eyeballs on it more with the immediacy streaming lends, The Craft now is kind of hailed as very progressive, even avant-garde and ahead of its time. Dust off the Ouija board and Walkmans. Welcome to the witching hour.
THE STORY: Teenager Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) has recently moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles with her father and stepmom. This is supposed to be a fresh start for Sarah, who attempted suicide recently. As it tends to be, sadly, making new friends and fitting in as the newbie is hard, but classmate Bonnie (Neve Campbell) notices Sarah using telekinesis to balance a pencil on her desk. She could be “The Fourth.”
What exactly is “The Fourth?” Bonnie and her two outsider friends in Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True) make up a trio who practice witchcraft. Without a fourth, the spells they conjure are weak at best, nonexistent at worst. Reticent at first to join, Sarah finds friendly companions in these three, perhaps because they all are experiencing deep needs/wants. Sarah desires that the jock, Chris (Skeet Ulrich), fall in love with her. Rochelle wants revenge on the school bully who picks on her because she’s black. Bonnie wishes her back scars away so that she can become beautiful inside and outside. And Nancy—the de facto leader dealing with an abusive stepfather in a next to nothing trailer park home—wants to fully invoke and harness the power of the deity, Manon, they spell cast to.
The next day following their expedition into the countryside where they casted their spells, results are seen. Chris is completely head over heels for Sarah, Rochelle’s bully gets a massive dose in humility, Bonnie’s scars dissipate, and Nancy swiftly deals with the nuisance that is her stepfather. They’ve achieved what they were after! But at what price?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Before the likes of Chronicle and Brightburn, there was this film, running with the premise of “If young teenagers/preteens had obtained or been blessed with otherworldly powers, what would they do with them?” For as esoteric and grunge The Craft is, its answer to that question is very rightfully normal. If teens got these powers, why would they try to play the part of heroes when they can just have fun, or improve their own day-to-day issues (no matter how inconsequential they may appear to be)? The Craft, unsurprisingly, dates itself in many areas like other similar time period films, but its themes and bolder style have given it higher staying power than one may realize.
The Craft began as the brainchild idea of producer Doug Wick and screenwriter Peter Filardi having the desire to make a high school teen story with a dark edge to it, unfocused on sex, prom dates, or even that traditionally awkward period between the last vestiges of being a high schooler before the turn of adulthood. No, their tale focuses on insecurity, body dysmorphia, depression, racism, and the general feeling of powerlessness to change any of that particularly as young outcast teenage girls, rarely the traditional focus for the subgenre. What can be the great equalizer for flipping the script? Witchcraft, a hidden, niche practice that at its core, is about empowering the native with supernatural forces of good…or bad…to help them take charge of their life.
One would think at some point, there would be some visible appearance of demons, deities, or possibly Satan himself as The Craft progresses. Whether due to budget constraints and/or the supernatural not being the sole focus of the film, that never manifests from director Andrew Fleming. However, there is a meticulous level of detail he and his production team deploy throughout. Careful not to offend Pagan communities and active practitioners, they made the smart choice to create fictional gods and beings, with the assistance of Pat Devin, a real-life Wiccan to ensure authenticity and accuracy concerning spells, aesthetics, and the like. Apparently, their efforts in this arena worked, actually creating out of the ordinary happenings on set.
From a cast perspective, the star of The Craft is Balk as Nancy Downs. Not to take anything away from her co-stars Tunney (who auditioned for Bonnie but was wisely moved to the part of Sarah), Campbell, and True, but her steady build from quietly intense yet still relatable to unhinged, power-hungry, walking-on-water maniac is legitimately terrifying, accentuated with a devolving look that resemble something less human and something more vessel-like. The extent as to just how much Balk was into witchcraft is up for debate, but whatever the extent, there is a lot of comfort she has in portraying this character. Filardi’s script is inconsistent pertaining to its leads’ “arcs;” nevertheless, the script nails Nancy’s de-evolution and Balk’s performance is one of the better ones of the subgenre.
A GREAT MOMENT: Almost went with the “Light as a feather, stiff as a board” levitation scene that sees the foursome start to realize the power they possess together. Had to go with the “He’s sorry!” moment that cements Nancy’s heel turn into monster territory. Leading up to it, Sarah has narrowly avoided another traumatic moment—an attempted rape at the hands of Chris, the boy she successfully casted a love spell on. Sarah shares with her coven friends the event, which prompts Nancy to leave off to a big party alone to find and punish Chris. Spoilers obviously to follow.
There, Nancy finds an inebriated Chris, and begins to throw herself on him unsuccessfully, peppering in the history they once shared. Chris still has eyes for only Sarah, which prompts Nancy to perform a glamour spell that makes her resemble Sarah. Foreplay begins and is interrupted when the real Sarah finds the two going at it. The spell is broken, and Chris, not quite out of his drunken stupor but far from comatose, starts throwing insults at Nancy, even claiming she’s jealous. This sets Nancy into a tirade that emasculates Chris, who has no choice but to say “He’s sorry.” The apology angers and humors Nancy, who repeats “He’s sorry! He’s sorry!” and begins to spaz. Suddenly, the window opens and Chris, as if seemingly positioned there by an external force, is flung out and meets his disturbing demise.
The editing in this scene may be a little over-the-top and Ulrich isn’t quite as good here as he would be months later in Scream. But Balk is unleashed to the nth degree, and Fleming uses the old-school Jaws & Vertigo dolly zoom effect to portray Nancy’s spiraling mental state with the camera mostly interested on her now ghastly countenance. The moment ends with Nancy’s head tilted slightly to the left, satisfied with what has just occurred. Unsettling stuff.
THE TALLY: Pairing a supernatural bend with very grounded and substantial real-world themes to the subgenre it makes up, The Craft has only grown in stature and impact since its release. Directly, there is no Sabrina the Teenage Witch or Charmed without it, and indirectly, it has inspired other works. Currently on HBO Max (as of this writing), it is What to Watch.
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