“We are the weirdos, mister.”
Do you believe in magic? In this episode, your three favorite podcast hosts call all four corners with the help of returning guest Krissy, our go-to guru for movies involving spells and sorcery.
First, we chat about the stigma of being goth in the 90s, and casting fake spells on our enemies. Then, When We Were Young explores the dark arts via 1996’s The Craft, starring Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Rachel True, and Fairuza Balk as teenage witches Sabrina wouldn’t be caught dead with.
From the fashion to the soundtrack to the casting of Skeet Ulrich as the big man on campus, The Craft casts a very dated spell in some ways. But how does the film’s twisted take on 90s “girl power” hold up 22 years later? Is Balk’s kooky, spooky turn as the coven’s queen bee Nancy as magnetic as we remember? With perfect love and perfect trust, we bind you from not listening to this podcast.
May 3, 1996
Budget: $15 million
Opening Weekend: $6.7 million
Domestic Total Gross: $24.8 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
In my eyes, The Craft is first and foremost a Christine Taylor movie. I didn’t know anything about it when it was gifted to me for my 14th birthday. In the days before IMDb, it wasn’t as easy to cinematically stalk your celebrity crush, and I didn’t know Christine Taylor was in anything recent besides The Brady Bunch Movie. (I did, of course, remember her from Hey Dude.)
The cover of the VHS was dark and menacing, featuring four witchy women — none of whom played Marcia Brady, so I had to take my friends’ word for it that Taylor was in the movie. I knew Neve Campbell from Party Of Five, and eventually realized that Fairuza Balk had played Dorothy Gale in Return To Oz, but these were the days before Scream and Buffy The Vampire Slayer would whet my appetite for quippy high schoolers having potentially fatal interactions, so I didn’t know what to expect. It looked like a pretty intense horror movie, the kind of thing I hadn’t yet seen. This was, most likely, the first R-rated film I owned. I sat down to watch it with one part trepidation, one part eagerness to see Christine Taylor attacked by witches.
As it turns out, The Craft is more of a teen drama with suspense elements than a straight-up horror movie. There’s no villain, really — just Nancy, an intimidating yet vulnerable teen girl who gets carried away with her own powers. She behaves badly and then, yes, a bit homicidally, but she’s not evil. (Her only victims were asking for it.)
The Craft exacerbates the problems so many teen girls face — being leered at by step-parents, slut-shamed by spurned boyfriends, ashamed of physical imperfections, and tormented by bitchy bullies. These problems all have to do with sexuality and appearance, all perpetrated by the socially powerful — men and pretty white blondes, basically. (Yes, that’s where Christine Taylor comes in.) This is done more elegantly in some parts of the film than in others. It’s impossible not to feel for Nancy when we see how bleak her home life is, and killing Chris isn’t merely a vengeance play — she has complicated feelings mixed up in her judgment of him. Unfortunately, the storyline for Campbell’s Bonnie is literally skin-deep — we don’t see how her newfound beauty actually changes her life, aside from ditching that bulky coat. And the homeless guy who keeps thrusting snakes into the faces of teenage girls, with no real effect on the plot, is perhaps a bit of overkill in phallic symbolism.
Still, it’s nice to see a genre film that explores teen pain seriously. Until Kevin Williamson and Joss Whedon came along, teen girls in 90s horror were merely leered at and chopped up. Most comedies in this era didn’t treat them much better. The Craft has precious little in common with the exploitative shlock it might have been, and more in common with a thoughtful teen drama. Call it My So-Called Coven.
The Craft straddles the line between teen melodrama and camp, and more or less satisfies both. Balk’s mouth deserves a screen credit all its own; in a movie populated by snakes, rats, maggots, and assorted other creepy-crawlies, Nancy’s pouting and smiling and screaming by far offers the most haunting images. Is it a good performance? That’s hard to say, but — forgive the cruel comparison — I’m reminded of Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls. You may not like her, but you wouldn’t want to miss a second that she’s on screen.
The Craft isn’t as cleverly constructed as Scream or Buffy — it’s a half-step in that direction, but take away Nancy and there’s something rather TV movieish about what remains. Still, it’s an admirable look at sisterhood as the antidote to the male gaze, and all the spell-casting scenes are strangely pleasurable.
The Craft is unique amongst teen movies — there isn’t another quite like it. That’s rare in a genre that ended up cloning itself to death after 1999.