The Craft

Witchcraft movies tend to be an uneasy mix of female empowerment and punitive moralizing. The fun comes from watching put-upon women testing their new powers, and yet the subtext seems to be: See, gals, you messed around with the supernatural and it got out of hand — you invoked an evil spirit or you caught Jack Nicholson’s demonic eye, whatever. Few such movies (except maybe George A. Romero’s superb, obscure Jack’s Wife) escape this paradox, which appears to derive from fear of female power.

The Craft, which I might as well go ahead and nickname Carrie Meets Heathers, is no exception. Four misfits in a Los Angeles Catholic high school — new girl Sarah (Robin Tunney), punkish Nancy (Fairuza Balk), African-American Rochelle (Rachel True), and burn-scarred Bonnie (Neve Campbell) — form a coven, and for a while they enjoy bonding and being “wicked” and casting spells. Not for long, though. The story is by Peter Filardi, who co-wrote the script with director Andrew Fleming (Threesome). Filardi, who also wrote Flatliners, must have a thing about young people who mess with the unknown. Too bad he doesn’t also have a thing about snappy dialogue or complex characters. And Fleming, who made his horror debut with 1988’s Freddy Krueger rip-off Bad Dreams, doesn’t have the dark, lyrical touch the material cries out for; he pushes too hard and frames everything TV-style.

The Craft turns into a war between the decent Sarah and the gradually amoral Nancy, who can’t resist misusing the powers given to her by the spirit she invokes. The other two are more intriguing characters but get less screen time. Bonnie’s scars vanish, and she turns into a snob overnight. And Rochelle puts a curse on a bleached-blonde Heather-type racist, played by Christine Taylor, who tossed her hair so accurately as Marcia in The Brady Bunch Movie. Taylor’s casting here turns out to be The Craft‘s wittiest joke — Jan Brady would love it.

The script is just connect-the-dots — far sketchier than such potentially rich material deserves. But the actresses work their own magic. Campbell (of TV’s Party of Five) and True are skilled at suggesting many girls’ reflexive self-hatred, and the freckled Tunney, whose dialogue all sounds ad-libbed even if it isn’t, creates an honorable young woman of integrity. And then there’s Fairuza Balk. Since her debut as Dorothy in 1985’s neglected gem Return to Oz (rent it now!), Balk has matured into a sparkly hellcat of an actress. She was funny and touching as a street ragamuffin in the recent Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and the best reason to see The Craft is to watch this former Dorothy become the Wicked Witch of the West Coast. When she’s floating and grinning, she’s pure riot-grrl id — an unholy mix of Courtney Love and Linda Blair. The Craft may ultimately depend on Screenwriting 101 sleight-of-hand, but this coven of actresses — especially Fairuza Balk, whose stardom is a decade overdue — can turn warmed-over horror soup into a real witches’ brew.

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