Monday 10 January 2011

Obscurity Files #35 - The Craft

With Nicolas Cage currently in cinemas battling against the dark arts in Season of The Witch, I thought I'd take a look at some other on screen witches.
Today, it's the turn of 1996's teen Wicca movie, The Craft.

After a failed suicide attempt, Sarah (Robin Tunney) and her family move to California for a fresh start. Starting at a new school, Sarah soon finds new friends in a group of three teenage witches. Honestly, do Catholic school girls ever turn out normal? So far their spells have only been minor successes, but with Sarah around to complete the group, they're able to use their magic to fix their bigger problems. But for how long?

All four of the girls clearly have issues, ranging from nasty scars, white trashiness, racism and the ability to balance pencils upright. They choose to use withcraft to deal with their teenage dramas, and soon see an improvement in their school and home lives. Things are all nice and rosey and there's lots of lovely girly bonding going on, but Nancy (Fairuza Balk) goes and pushes the spirits too far, meaning their spells start to backfire on them. The bitch from the locker room might have stopped using racial slurs at you, but causing all of her hair to fall out may leave you with crushing guilt; and the school jock you put under a love spell may be paying you a lot more attention, but things get out of hand when he starts to get a bit rapey.

The Craft arrived on screen in 1996, one year after Robin Tunney had appeared as the suicidal 'Sinead O'Rebellion' Debra in Empire Records. For that role she shaved her head, meaning that throughout The Craft she was forced to wear the most distracting wig I've ever seen. You can't help but stare at her thoroughly unnatural hairline, clearly the work of the devil. It's pretty obvious from the start which one's meant to be the good guy and the bad guy, but as Robin Tunney's lead character is so unsufferably bland, I'd hazard a guess that most teens in a rebellious phase find it easier to relate to Fairuza Balk's livewire character.

If I had to give you one reason to watch The Craft, it's Fairuza Balk, obviously. She may have a history of playing slightly kooky, weirdo characters in odd movies (Bad Lieutenant, Return To Oz), but Nancy is probably the closest she's ever been to playing herself. Nowadays they would probably get some beauty queen cast off from Gossip Girl to don her black lipstick, but Balk is perfect for this unhinged firecracker role. Like some illegitimate offspring of Ruby Wax and The Cure's Robert Smith, Balk's Nancy starts to really appreciate the fun you can have with the dark arts. She may be a bit loopy from the start, but when she starts to go bat shit crazy in the final act, she's great fun to watch.

Robin Tunney was the cast member people were clearly banking on achieving mega stardom, and although she has worked solidly since the mid 90's, appearing alongside Arnie in End of Days and on TV in the first season of Prison Break, I'd argue it's this and her role in Empire Records for which she's still best known. In fact it was Neve Campbell (appearing here in a relatively small role) who was the only one to achieve anything close to mega stardom in 1996, thanks to her signature role as Sidney Prescott in Scream.

The Craft has become a must watch film for any angsty teenagers, and a quick search on YouTube should prove how much of an influence the film has had on goth culture. Want a collection of clips put to the music of Marilyn Manson? You got it. I'm surprised this film never suffered the indignity of having a dodgy straight to video sequel, and I'm not sure how it managed to avoid that fate.

It's fair to say that this film has had a lasting influence on how witchcraft is perceived in teen sci-fi, from Willow in Buffy to the obvious rip-off of The Craft that is the godawful TV series Charmed. The Craft may be far from a classic film, but for the right audience it's the perfect blend of angst and teen friendships, with the odd pagan ritual thrown in for good measure.

Save from obscurity? YES.

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