“Relax, it’s only magic.”
It’s the mid 1990’s, the X-files had stoked the supernatural fire, the Fortean Times was rife with aliens, ghosts and anything of a spooky nature, and the world became slightly obsessed with Witchcraft. Sabrina The Teenage Witch captivated children in 1996, Charmed aimed at the young adults 1996, Practical Magic 1990, The Blair Witch Project 1999, Sleepy Hollow 1999, all dominated the box office. One film hit the tone of the moment ‘The Craft.’ I have fond memories of heading down to the local Showcase Cinema with friends to watch The Craft, but I have not seen the film a lot in the intervening years. Having rented it on Blu-Ray from Cinema Paradiso, it’s time to give it a review!
A girl changes towns and schools, for no other reason than her dad wanted to move, coincidently a group of three girl aspiring witches, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True), are looking for a fourth member to make their coven complete. The weird girls feel that they have magic, but are unable to craft any, as the type of magic they practice is based on Aristotle’s four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, with each witch controlling one element or representing a point on the compass. Without the fourth member they cannot summon the spirit Manon. A spirit that predates God and the Devil and is explained as being nature itself. The trio are restricted to looking as moody and as goth as possible while being snidey to everyone outside their circle. This causes the girls to be known as the ‘Bitches of Eastwood.’
After witnessing new girl Sarah (Robin Tunney), magically control a pencil in class (yes, a pencil!) she is invited into the coven and the witches now have their fourth member. Sarah being new to the school doesn’t know anything about anyone and is also friended by classmate Chris, who turns out to be a typical high school idiot boy and treats Sarah very badly – calling her names like ‘Snail Trail’ and spreading nasty rumours about how bad she is at sex. Meanwhile the other girls are not fairing much better. Bonnie seems the nicest of the girls, but she is covered in scars from burns and is attempting to erase them. Rochelle is black and suffers racist abuse from a white, blond girl. Nancy is full on emo goth who considers herself white trash and has an unstable home life.
So, the scene is set nicely for the girls to explore their powers and it is not long before Manon is summoned. The hateful Chris becomes besotted by Sarah turning his back on his boyish mates to spend all his time following Sarah like a puppy dog, Bonnie removes her scars, Nancy comes into money and Rochelle’s racist abuser gets her comeuppance. However, it is not all as it seems. Manon (just like nature) has balance, what is dealt out comes back three times more powerful. Bonnie turns nasty, Rochelle becomes horrified at the extent her spell is working, Nancy goes full on Witch and gets more insane as the movie moves forward, Chris attempts to rape Sarah on a hill when his obsession with her worsens. It’s not long before the bodies start dropping
The Craft is a story written by Peter Filardi (who also wrote Flatliners in 1990 and has not done much since The Craft). Director Andrew Fleming turned the film into a screenplay. Interestingly Andrew Fleming became a jobbing director in TV world after The Craft, most noticeable recently for directing ‘Emily in Paris.’ The Craft can be described as a teen retribution movie. Filardi & Fleming’s writing comes across as both typical for the time, but also very stereotypical for the genre. It’s not subtle in its influences having a striking similarity with 1988’s Heathers. Fleming script explores attitudes to fitting in at school, dating and racism, putting the angst into teenage angst, long before teen films such as Twilight popularised the concept.
Part of the fondness I have for The Craft stems from the characterisations. The girls may all seem typical, but Fleming uses witchcraft as a tool to create a story around friendship, jealousy, and the lust for power. The girls all have their own vendettas bubbling under the surface and each girl ends the film a different person to how they started; some changed for good, some bad.
The film attempts to push the message that power corrupts but does so in quite a haphazard way. As with most films, this is a tale of three acts. Whilst acts 1 and 2 feel the most connected, act 1 – the girls meet and discover their powers together, act 2- the girls use their powers and the consequences start to reveal themselves, act 3 –switches focus purely to a lust for power and the reluctance to embrace it and for a while forgets that an actual coven exists.
Watching The Craft after not seeing it for a long time, made me realise how genuinely dark this film is. Fleming has not simply gone for spooky magic he attempts full on shocks (that contributed to its 15 rating in the UK). Fleming keeps away from injecting the film with huge amounts of humour, favouring instead to include a few one liners, with the one Iconic line hitting the smile spot.
Bus driver: You girls watch out for those weirdos.
Nancy: We are the weirdos, mister.
Mostly Fleming concentrates on how dark the witchcraft can be, this includes finding ways to be unsettling during dream sequences. In the days before ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ popularised being covered in creepy crawlies, The Craft shocked audiences by bringing witchcraft symbolism to life. The scene where Sarah sees snakes, spiders, and rodents at every turn, invokes some sort of primeval fear in Sarah and is shocking even by today’s standards.
The script moves forward at pace, often at the detriment of consistency. In one scene the witches invite Sarah to go shopping, she attempts an excuse not to go, saying she has no money. In the next scene she is paying twenty dollars for a spell book with cash. Did she simply magic up the money?
Unusually for the 90’s the subject of racism gets tackled full on. No subtle hints or remarks, Fleming ensures Rochelle is subjected to bullying, and when she eventually asks why, the white, blond bully tells her: “I Don’t Like ‘Negroids’” – ouch. In today’s world, it’s a scene that must be applauded for shining a light on racism, but back in the 90’s I fear that it was included just for a way to give Rochelle a target to aim her spells at, with no thought of the consequences, how many 90s kids ended up repeating that line?
One of the reasons The Craft works so well is Pam Dixon’s casting. Dixon managed to locate a talented group of twenty somethings that are relatable, as both social outcasts and also as witches. Dixon’s other castings all equally suit their respective roles well. Here are my thoughts on the coven members:
- Relax, it’s only magic. Now who’s pathetic?
Tunney’s Sarah is the central focus of The Craft. When we first meet Sarah, she is quite a timid character. Unsure of her powers and in an unfamiliar environment, she meets the other girls and experiments with magic and Sarah grows in confidence and power. Sarah’s arc may not be the most original, but Tunney is able to find the character’s sweet spot, finding ways to convey the range of teenage emotions on screen, as well as portray a credible witch. After The Craft Tunney went on to have success with turns in ‘End of Days’ and a TV career that includes ‘Prison Break.’
- Punk rock, let’s go.
Nancy is on the opposite arc to Sarah. Nancy appears as a strong character and the leader of the coven; however, she gives into lust and temptations. She is weak willed and her mental state spirals into decline. All of this means that Balk has the most emotion to convey on screen and it is a powerhouse performance. Balk nails the gnarly look and can convey Nancys depth of feeling with eye glances, facial expressions and displays of emotion. I cannot help noticing that Nancy comes across to modern audiences as a female version of Yungblud. I wonder if Yungblud watched Balk’s performance and modelled his look on her?
- Shut up, Rochelle!
Bonnie is the weakest character and is very much a supporting cast member, her decent into bitchiness is the most her character really does. Neve plays it well with what she has, but we do not see a massive range as all she has to do is reply to things is a snidey fashion, any high school girl could play her part. So, it is a surprise then that director Wes Craven spotted Campbell and her ‘Scream’ career kicked off.
- The right way? How do you know the right way?
Being black should not matter, and the shameful fact is that sometimes it does. Back in the 90’s, this was a ground-breaking role for True, to be exposed to racism on the big scream and revealing how her character felt about it. You can see in True’s face the pain and disbelief it is causing. It is even more poignant then that True’s role was originally written as a ‘white bulimic girl,’ so it’s fantastic that True fought for the role and was cast.
As the only Black actor in the film, True felt ignored on promotional tours and interviews and quite famously, even as recently as 2020, streaming service ‘Showtime’ failed to even credit True!
@Showtime could you credit me properly w/ the rest of the cast?
When young black people see Rochelle uncredited they might get the idea the black girl -who has a name-isn’t important enough to credit even though she’s on the poster.
This kind of thing contributes to erasure‼️ https://t.co/05NexfjHj5
— Rachel True (@RachelTrue) July 16, 2020
And even as I write this, I notice that ‘Cinema Paradiso’ has not even listed True on the Blu -Ray Cover – not good enough people!
The Craft on Blu-ray is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio. This provides clear audio with the surround and rear speakers used for the score and effects. Bass levels are good and not overly boomy. A scene with the witches by a stormy sea uses the full range of sound with chanting, thunderclaps and the sea whipping up. Most importantly the dialogue is crisp and clear.
The score is composed by Graeme Revell, who went onto score hits such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Riddick, and the series Gotham. In The Craft, Revell uses the score to provide atmosphere. It is a collection of fifteen tracks that vary from sounds of ethereal spookiness such as ‘A Natural Witch’ through to the generic horror trope of ‘Invocation’ a track that would sound at home as the backing track for a ghost train. Revell also uses Indian influences in ‘The Magic Store’ and ‘Lightning Strikes’ has routes in Hindustani classical music.
Revell has also opted to incorporate a full soundtrack to The Craft. It features bands of the time such as Sponge, Elastica and Our Lady Peace to name a few. Nearly 3 decades later the soundtrack has become a perfect time capsule of 90’s culture
Due to its very topic The Craft is an ambitious, effects heavy film. David Kelsey coordinated the effects and attained mixed results. Some of the scenes work well, such as the levitating scenes and the liberal use of snakes and creatures. Scenes such as the dream sequence, that features the flying witches, expose a shortfall in both budget and technical ability. Remember that audiences had been exposed to the marvellous melty man in Terminator 2, only 5 years prior and the effects powerhouse that is Titanic came out 1 year after The Craft, so this film really had no excuse to use effects that look more at home in a 1950’s Cecil B. DeMille picture!
A special mention goes out to Jim Beinke makeup effects artist and makeup effects project supervisor. The makeup effects are on point in The Craft and work to express the characters personality and emotions.
Alexander Gruszynski is director of photography on The Craft and has a tricky job to do. Fleming’s script calls for lots of interior and outside shots and has both day and night situations to cope with. Gruszynski has risen to the occasion well, some shots have a small amount of graining, but the general look and feel of the cinematography means this is overlooked. Gruszynski compliments close up shots with creative use of cameras for overhead shots, so the viewer gets to see what is going on without it being jarring. If I have one criticism, it is that the aesthetic Gruszynski is going for leads to a muted colour palette, whilst this adds to the sombre angsty feel of The Craft I think it would have benefited from an explosion of colour.
On the face of it you may just think that The Craft is a movie that uses witchcraft to dress up the fact that it is just another teen revenge story. However, its more than that. It brought teen topics to the screen way before it became popular to do so in the early 2000’s. Within the 1 hour 41 runtime The Craft’s story tackles bullying, racism, poverty, body issues, abuse, suicide, sexual assault, and the fear of snakes! One thing is for sure, this film has cast its spell on teen and adult audiences alike. Just searching #thecraft throws up an army, no scrap that, several covens of fans all regularly celebrating the films existence. Despite its shortcomings with questionable effects and dumbed down colours, this is a film that sparked a whole generation of witch-based productions and conversations. It has even spawned a sequel of sorts (vastly inferior and way to woke for its own good). Decades after its release The Craft has achieved that rare unicorn of a cult status in the public consciousness, and that is not a bad thing.
I gave it a Recommended rating
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Drected by Andrew Fleming
Peter Filardi … (story)(screenplay)
Andrew Fleming … (screenplay)
Cast (in credits order)
Robin Tunney … Sarah Bailey
Fairuza Balk … Nancy Downs
Neve Campbell … Bonnie
Rachel True … Rochelle
Skeet Ulrich … Chris Hooker
Christine Taylor … Laura Lizzie
Breckin Meyer … Mitt
Nathaniel Marston … Trey
Cliff De Young … Mr. Bailey
Assumpta Serna … Lirio
Helen Shaver … Grace Downs
Jeanine Jackson … Jenny
Brenda Strong … Doctor
Elizabeth Guber … Laura’s Friend
Jennifer Greenhut … Laura’s Friend
Arthur Senzy … Vagrant
Endre Hules … Monsieur Thepot
Mark Conlon … Swimming Coach
Christine Louise Mills … Stewardess (as Christine Louise Berry)
William Newman … Street Preacher
Erin Tavin … Homeless Mother
Rod Britt … Priest
Brogan Roche … Insurance Man
Rebecca McLaughlin … Biology Teacher
Tony Genaro … Bus Driver
Janet Rotblatt … Homeroom Teacher
Jason Filardi … Paramedic
Karyn J. Dean … Whispering Girl
Danielle Koenig … Whispering Girl
Janet Eilber … Sarah’s Mother
Esther Scott … Asylum Nurse
Ginny Nugent … executive producer
Lisa Tornell … co-producer
Douglas Wick … producer
Music by Graeme Revell
Cinematography by Alexander Gruszynski