Summer Shocks 1996: The Craft

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Jeff digs these witchy women

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

The way I see it, if you’re a teenage girl, it wouldn’t hurt to at least try to be a witch. And if you can do it with your friends, then all the better. It only makes sense – if you’re hanging out anyhow, why not crack open a book of spells, sit in a circle and light a few candles? For a group of guys, that kind of thing would be too awkward to attempt. Girls, on the other hand, are always just a slumber party away from becoming a full-on witches’ coven.

A kind of spellbound spin on Carrie, or a Hexed Heathers, The Craft became a minor hit based largely on its appeal to the female audience. Directed and written (along with co-scripter Peter Filardi) by Andrew Fleming, The Craft tells the tale of Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), a new addition to a Los Angeles Catholic high school, having just moved to LA from San Francisco with her dad and step mom. Sarah has a few emotional issues (having your mother die while giving birth to you can mess with your head) and has previously attempted suicide. We know that this was a serious attempt on Sarah’s part and not just a lame cry for help because she cut lengthwise down her wrist rather than across. You go, girl!

On her first day at school, Chris (Skeet Ulrich), the star of the football team, quickly comes on to Sarah. She’s also befriended by a trio of girls who aren’t as high on the social ladder as Chris and his jock buddies. In fact, the boys mockingly make the sign of the cross whenever these girls (dubbed “The Bitches of Eastwick”) pass by them in the halls. As Chris tells Sarah: “Whatever you do, stay away from them…they’re witches.” And because this is a horror film, of course, we know that’s not just a figure of speech.

Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True) and Nancy (Fairuza Balk) all sport Goth garb (with Nancy being the most committed to her look) and surly attitudes. All have their own demons to deal with: Bonnie’s entire back is covered in hideous burns; Rochelle feels the sting of racism as a black girl in a predominantly white school; and Nancy has a hellish home life, struggling with poverty with her mother and lecherous step dad (an uncredited John Kapelos, best known as the janitor from The Breakfast Club and familiar to genre fans as Det. Schanke from Forever Knight).

Sensing that Sarah might be a kindred spirit and believing that she is meant to be the fourth member they’ve been searching for to complete their circle and increase their ability to invoke spirits, Bonnie, Rochelle, and Nancy want to recruit Sarah into their nascent occult ventures. Sarah is reluctant to get involved until her one date with Chris leads to him falsely claim to have slept with Sarah. Wanting to get some payback, Sarah throws in with her new friends and some witchery is afoot.

As it turns out, with Sarah playing on their team, this quartet is able to make things happen in a big way. Soon, Bonnie’s disfiguring scars are a thing of the past; Rochelle’s bitchy, white-bred nemesis (Christine Taylor) loses all her blond locks; Sarah has Chris under a love spell; and Nancy’s stepfather is permanently taken out of the picture, his sudden death sending a sizable inheritance to her and her mother. Unfortunately, among the foursome, all but Sarah are ill equipped to handle their newfound power (Sarah may have tried suicide once but as it turns out she’s got some level-headedness to her). When Sarah attempts to reel her friends back from the dark side, they don’t care for having a Glenda in their midst and some witch-on-witch action soon goes down, sans brooms or black cats.

A hardcore horror film The Craft isn’t. Until its elaborate snake, rat, and bug-infested climax, it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of scares. But it is an enjoyably earnest supernatural drama with some well-delivered jolts (a moment where Rochelle turns to face herself in a mirror but only sees the back of her head is appropriated from the 1992 Stephen King adaptation, Dolores Claiborne) and solid performances. Fleming and Filardi’s script wisely doesn’t make magic out to be the culprit. It’s stressed that it isn’t magic itself that’s corrupted these girls; magic is essentially neutral – being neither white nor black. Instead it’s these girls who have used magic as an avenue to embrace their own selfish, vengeful natures.

At first, we’re squarely in the girl’s corner. It’s not easy to identify with the difficulties faced by hot teenage girls – after all, how tough can their lives really be? – but yet The Craft manages to make it happen as the everyday hardships these girls have in school and home are relatable. No one wants to feel ashamed of their body, as Bonnie does; no one wants to be judged by the color of their skin, as Rochelle is; no one wants to be the subject of lies, as Sarah is; and no one wants to hate the home they live in, as Nancy does. But for Bonnie, Rochelle, and Nancy, once they see what’s possible with magic, once they’ve become the queens of their world instead of living on the bottom of it, they have no plans to check themselves before they wreck themselves and woe to the witch who suggests that enough is enough. Sarah’s plight as the odd witch out becomes genuinely scary. Her former friends aren’t just looking to cast her out of the coven, but to kill her.

While Tunney, Campbell, and True are all adequate in their roles, this movie ultimately belongs to Fairuza Balk as Nancy, the natural ringleader of the coven. It’s commonly said that genre films get the short end of the stick when it comes to the Academy Awards and that’s certainly true when it comes to Balk’s performance. Her work here was worthy of a Best Supporting Actress nod (Joan Allen and Lauren Bacall were among the nominees that year – for The Crucible and The Mirror Has Two Faces, respectively – and Juliette Binoche won for The English Patient) but because The Craft is a horror film – a teen-orientated horror film at that – there was no Oscar love for Balk’s ferocious performance.

This might be a lightweight film out to convey a simplistic message about karma but apparently no one told Balk this was a mere bubblegum movie for the mall crowd. Her stops-out portrayal of Nancy is a psycho for the ages. The Craft‘s storyline follows a predictably moralizing pattern but Balk’s unbridled outbursts, taunts, and tirades – her face often twisting into expressions that you’d think that only CGI could provide – are what gives The Craft its kick. In a straight-laced film, with straight-laced co-stars, Balk is anarchy personified. If The Joker were a female, Balk would’ve been perfect for the role.

The Craft wasn’t the best horror movie of the summer of ’96 – that would be Peter Jackson’s hellzapoppin’ spook show The Frighteners – but its sleeper success did show that there was a new, young, female audience with an appetite for genre material; the same audience that helped make Scream a hit later that year. In the years since, women (and teenage girls, especially) have frequently had more of an impact on the genre’s box office fortunes than men. Call it magic, call it girl power, or call it The Sisterhood of the Traveling Chants; call it what you will. To say it in the simplest terms, when women get together, things happen.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’96:

The Frighteners (July 19th)

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood (August 16th)

The Island of Dr. Moreau (August 23rd)

The Crow: City of Angels (August 31st)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

SUMMER OF 1989:

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

SUMMER OF 1990:

Class of 1999

SUMMER OF 1991:

Body Parts

SUMMER OF 1992:

Single White Female

SUMMER OF 1993:

Jason Goes to Hell

SUMMER OF 1994:

The Crow

SUMMER OF 1995:

Tales from the Hood

Source: Jeff Allard