It is better that you should run upon this blade than miss today’s Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia, Tor.com!
Okay, maybe not actually. But as today’s MRGN is covering that Gothic wonder of 1996, The Craft, I bet you’ll be pretty sorry that you missed it. So come and see!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
KATE: I was the perfect age for this movie.
LIZ: No, I was. I was a junior in high school when this came out, so the characters were supposed to be almost exactly my age, so it’s more perfect for me.
KATE: Well, I was FANTASIZING about being a high school girl when this came out, so I was the more perfect age!
I could have pointed out, really, that as a college student I was the perfect age for this movie, because I was being nostalgic for high school, but (a) I really wasn’t (I loved college), and (b) this conversation was far more hilarious as an observer rather than a participant, so I didn’t chime in.
The thing is, though, all three of us were, broadly speaking, young women transitioning from childhood to (theoretical) adulthood in 1996, even if we were each at different stages of that transition, and like many people growing up in the 90s, particularly girls, The Craft struck an oddly resonant chord with us, then and now, that I think is worth examining.
This decision not being at all influenced by how my sisters and I have been, for reasons I don’t actually remember now, vastly entertaining ourselves with 90s YouTube playlists these last couple of weeks. But it did definitely occur to me that, other than Dark City (which as a period piece—for very bizarre values of that term—doesn’t really count), the MRGN has oddly not yet ventured much into the fractured and flannel-laden decade of the 1990s, and that’s a thing that really should be corrected.
So here we are, with what is arguably one of the most quintessentially 90s SF movies made in that entire decade: The Craft.
The reason it is so quintessentially 90s, of course, is that it is also a teen movie. And teen movies, whatever else they may be, are almost always distressingly accurate snapshots of the time period they are made in. You want to know what were the predominant fashions, the music, the hilarious-in-retrospect pop cultural obsessions of a particular decade, or even for a specific year within that? Watch a teen movie from that year, and you’ll know.
Well, mostly. I’m not going to claim that any teen movie perfectly encapsulates the experience of every teenager who existed in the moment it depicts, but judging by the intense amount of nostalgia watching The Craft brought on for me and my sisters, it does the job for at least some of us. Especially those of us who were into, let us say, some of the less bubbly, perhaps not so brightly colored corners of the 90s scene.
KATE: There used to be this Goth bar in the French Quarter called the Whirling Dervish, and I’d get my The Cure on and go do interpretative dance.
LIZ: You were totally the Goth kids from South Park.
KATE: “Dancing is the outward expression of my abject misery!”
None of us were really Goths—I always said I would have been one in another life, but never quite had the conviction to commit to it in this one—but I think we all definitely felt the allure of what the Goth thing embodied: a philosophy that demanded being proud of your lack of conformity, instead of ashamed of it. Also badass clothes.
LIZ: You’re sort of Goth, though.
ME: Nah. I’m Goth-adjacent, at best.
And I’m okay with that. But at least 65% of my fascination with this movie has to be watching Fairuza Balk’s wardrobe evolve from “white trash sullen teen rebellion” to full blown, demon queen, featured player at Bar Sinister glorious Gothic witch.
I ain’t gonna lie, I was jealous of it then and I’m wistful about it now.
We’ve been fascinated with Fairuza Balk ever since her debut role in Return to Oz, but she is utterly mesmerizing—no pun intended—in The Craft. Basically she is the reason this movie is as strangely compelling as it is; when she’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off her. And not just because she’s clearly not wearing a bra in that one slomo walking scene.
ME: I’m trying to make a joke about The Witch Stuff here, but I can’t make it work.
LIZ: Would anyone get it if you did?
ME: You hush.
I have to pause here, by the way, to shake my head in eye-rolling amusement at this movie’s depiction of Catholic schools, which is hilariously wrong in that fetish-y way that only people who have never been inside an actual Catholic school think Catholic schools are like.
KATE: Seriously. They used to make us kneel on the ground to check that our skirts covered our knees. And wearing rosaries? And black nail polish? Can you imagine?
Yeah, basically if you pranced around wearing rosaries at a real Catholic school you’d be suspended and possibly expelled before you could say “mortal sin”. (Note: I don’t think it is actually considered a mortal sin by the Catholic Church to wear a rosary like a necklace, but we were certainly told it was when I was younger. And wearing one for obviously non-prayerful reasons—and what could easily be interpreted as mocking or even satanic reasons—would never in a million years pass without censure in even the most loosely-run Catholic institution.)
In sum, no Catholic school would ever have let their students get away with Skeet Ulrich’s character’s uniform violations, let alone Fairuza’s. So it’s ridiculous, but it is also undeniably awesome as well, so who cares.
The movie didn’t get everything wrong about Catholic school girls, though. Or maybe high school girls in general; I’m not sure, but I think the “light as a feather, stiff as a board” game was pretty universal. But my sisters and I, at any rate, played that and many other vaguely occult games all the time. In fact we had to pause the movie during this scene to reminisce fondly about the illicit thrill of screwing around with Ouija boards and the Bloody Mary game, and so Kate could jump up and recreate the “floating arm” trick, which I distinctly remember was a huge hit at one of my friends’ fifteenth birthday party (and honestly is still pretty fun to do; you should try it if you haven’t before!).
I have a theory, in fact, that the entire premise of this movie stemmed from the “light as a feather” scene: Catholic school girls messing around with silly occult shit and discovering that holy shit it works. And then discovering that you have a way to strike back at the haters and the bullies and the epic douchebags which are a sad reality in just about every young woman’s life? That’s some heady stuff, man.
Because of course that’s what witchcraft has historically always been about: the allure of an avenue to power for the powerless—a way around the stifled and pointless and disdained existence that was often the only one women were allowed to have—and the frequently lethal hysteria that stemmed from fear of that potential power.
Yeah, so essentially this movie was catnip on multiple levels for teenage girls—and boys, too, if for probably very different reasons, but there’s no doubt which demographic this was squarely—and very effectively—aimed at.
It helps that the witchcraft rituals this movie riffs off of were surprisingly well researched, it turns out. The filmmakers hired a practicing Wiccan high priestess as a consultant, and she apparently had a pretty big influence on the authenticity of the various spells and rites used in the film. She also, I have no doubt, was instrumental in the film’s (also surprising) emphasis on demonstrating the essential, nature-based neutrality of Wicca, in a line worth quoting for how much it struck me at the time:
LIRIO: True magic is neither black, nor white – it’s both because nature is both. Loving and cruel, all at the same time. The only good or bad is in the heart of the witch. Life keeps a balance on its own.
Simplistic, perhaps, but not the kind of thing you tended to hear either from Catholic-oriented education or more conventionally Hollywood depictions of witches, and thus pretty fascinating to me. I may not believe in Wicca as a religion (any more than I believe in Catholicism as a religion, anymore), but as a general philosophy it sucks a hell of a lot less than some I’ve come across.
KATE: I always wanted to find a shop like Lirio’s.
Which leads us to another fun fact: apparently Fairuza Balk was herself a practicing Wiccan (at least at the time), and after filming The Craft she bought her own occult shop, which as far as I can tell she still owns today.
LIZ: Can we talk about how incredibly 90s this cast was?
It really was. Skeet Ulrich may still be working today, but his legacy as an actor will forever be playing predatory 90s douchebags who satisfyingly get theirs at the hands of the women they tried to victimize. Liz and Kate both claim they crushed on him back in the day (and they were certainly not alone there), but for my money he was just a liiiiittle too good at playing assholes for me to be attracted to him.
Same for Neve Campbell, really: she has also worked steadily since this movie and especially the Scream franchise put her on the map in the 1990s, but honestly I can’t say I really remember her in anything attention-grabbing once Party of Five went off the air in 2000. Same goes, basically, for Rachel True, except that I don’t remember her in anything other than this movie.
KATE: Also, Neve’s shirt right there is the WORST SHIRT EVER.
And honestly, I couldn’t tell you a single thing that protagonist Robin Tunney has been in besides this without looking it up either, with the sole exception of Empire Records, in which she looked shockingly good bald. Which leads us to our other fun fact, which is that since Tunney shot Empire Records immediately before The Craft, she was wearing a wig for this entire movie.
LIZ: I KNEW IT! Her hair looked so weird in this movie! Not even counting the terrible CGI “blonde glamour” scene!
KATE: I kind of hated her in this, honestly. She has such weird body language, and a terrible walk.
Well, she’s not wrong.
Also featured is Christine Taylor, who went on to be part of Ben Stiller’s whole comedy mini-kingdom, but whom I will always most fondly remember as an eerily perfect Marcia Brady doppleganger in the excruciatingly 90s The Brady Bunch Movie (the cleverness of which deserves far more love than it’s gotten, in my opinion).
ME: Is the slur she uses on Rachel True in this movie like a thing people actually said?
Great. Apparently I missed that particular racist epithet as a teenager in real life; can’t say I’m sorry about it. And however deserved Rochelle’s revenge may have been on her character, I have to say the hair falling out thing was intensely disturbing for reasons I can’t quite articulate.
There is obviously an entire separate essay to be had on the ethics of what the girls do to their enemies in The Craft, and on the idea of supernatural ethics in general, but that is too complicated and I don’t feel like writing it a bit outside the scope of this post, so I’ll just say that the movie was also fairly equitable in making sure everyone was punished proportionately for the level of badness they committed. Bonnie and Rochelle, for instance, got off pretty lightly, commensurate with the relative harmlessness of their “wishes” (though I think they should have paid more for going along with Nancy’s snakes-and-bugs-and-EEEEK-and-murder thing at the end), while Sarah paid much more heavily for messing with something as volatile as love and obsession. And Nancy, of course—well.
The rightness or wrongness of revenge fantasies notwithstanding, I defy anyone not to have enjoyed or at least been morbidly fascinated by Fairuza Balk’s utterly convincing portrayal of a girl literally driven mad with power. Basically this movie would have been nothing without her, and we heart her and her crazy forever.
So, is this a great movie? Well, it definitely has achieved cult status. It has a mad awesome soundtrack (I would never have heard of Connie Francis were it not for The Craft, and that would have been a crime), some of my favorite costuming of any movie ever, and we were enthralled for the whole movie even though we’ve all seen the thing about a million times before.
So… yeah. As far as we’re concerned, anyway, this one’s pretty damn great.
And so we close with our Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
And that’s the end, blessed be! Come back in two weeks for more MRGN, man!