The 90s on Netflix: The Craft (1996)
Mark Harrison | On 28, Oct 2022
Director: Andrew Fleming
Cast: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, Skeet Ulrich
Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. Every month, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
“We are the weirdos, mister.” The Craft sees depressed teen Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) move from Los Angeles to San Francisco with her father and stepmother. At Catholic high school St Benedict’s Academy, she falls in with the “weird” girls – Bonnie, (Neve Campbell) Rochelle, (Rachel True) and Nancy (Fairuza Balk) – who are looking for a fourth member to complete their coven.
After the four budding witches invoke the powers of a god they call Manon, they use their newfound magic powers to settle some scores in their personal lives. But before long, things get out of hand, and the coven’s friendship turns dangerous and then toxic.
The film’s female-led fantasy starts on a strong foot. The supernatural gives these girls an outlet for the righteous rage each of them feel about things like their home lives, their medical issues, the racist abuse they get from classmates or the ever-irritating dominance of Idiot Boys, here fronted by Skeet Ulrich’s loathsome poser.
That goes for movies in general too, though – there are startlingly few female wish-fulfilment flicks like this, relative to the steady stream of male power fantasies that barges through trends of Westerns, sci-fi, action and now superhero movies. Meanwhile, this was a surprise box-office sleeper hit when it came out, and you can see why it still has a cult following.
Tonally, the film wears its outsider status well – it’s kookier and knottier than 1990s teen-movie touchstones Clueless or Scream (although it has Campbell and Ulrich in common with the latter, a few months before that film hit cinemas). It’s got some gnarly moments, especially in the first half, and the soundtrack of alternative pop covers both undercuts and somehow solidifies the teen spirit.
Tunney, Campbell and True all stake out their characters well, but it’s Fairuza Balk who runs away with the movie. Her performance as Nancy Downs is instantly iconic for a whole bunch of reasons, but she’s the one who weathers the film’s wild tonal shifts the best – she’s just as assured in the weightier emotional stuff as she is in the high-school banter and the bananas climax.
Before it gets there, though, the film all too obviously tips into chiding its female characters for expressing themselves. The fun and games and righteous reprisals of the first act give way to a cautionary tale about how power corrupts. It starts off like 1990s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and turns into 2000s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The movie-grade VFX hold up about as well as any effects from the decade, but the Best Fight MTV Movie Award-winning showdown that comes near the end is more a failure of storytelling than of spectacle. However reluctant the film is to punish its female characters, it still hews to convention. The 2020 legacyquel, The Craft: Legacy, apparently redresses the balance a bit more.
Whether it’s viewed at Halloween or all year round, The Craft is an imperfect but entertaining teen movie that stays weird even as it returns to more conventional plotting before its conclusion. Deeply of its time, you can see why a generation of girls took it to heart, whether as a guilty pleasure or a formative fave.