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‘The Craft’: From Critically Booed Blunder to Potent Cult Classic

Are you ready for the witching hour? The time has come to call the four corners and unpack this 90s horror flick's lasting legacy, friends.
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When it was first released in 1996, The Craft received mixed reviews. Actually, most reviews were lukewarm–and some were downright negative. Still, the horror flick about a coven of high-school outcasts was hardly a flop. It raked in $25 million at the box office, making it an undeniable commercial success.

Now it’s more popular than ever.

Many full moons later, this witchy romp has been dubbed a cult classic, inspiring fan fiction, cosplay, fashion trends, catchphrases, and even a 2020 reboot. But some of us have been under its spell from the start.

With the witching hour approaching, let’s celebrate The Craft and tap into its potent power.

The Bewitching Era of Dark Glamour

Some have called the original “ahead of its time,” but arguably, it debuted at just the right time. As we previously reported, 2020’s The Craft: Legacy seemed “afraid to take risks” by making any of its characters truly villainous. In turn, the PG-13 follow-up couldn’t hold a candle to The Craft’sprofound, enduring legacy.” But was anyone really surprised by that?

The Craft gave dark magic a fervently glamourous glow, something that was best conjured up during the riot grrl reign. Weave in ideas of sisterhood, rebellion, identity, and transformation, you’ve got a hypnotically alluring concept for young women looking to be liberated.

the four main characters in The Craft playing "light as a feather, stiff as a board" surrounded by candles at a sleep over
Columbia Pictures

After seeing The Craft for the first time, no future was more magical to me than becoming a teenage witch with gall. These were empowered females with legit powers. When they played “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” it actually worked. I couldn’t wait to levitate!

Obviously, as a preteen, I couldn’t wrap my head around everything happening in this rated Rated-R flick right away, but it quickly proved impactful and continued getting better with age.

Why ‘The Craft’ Still Holds Up

What makes this Andrew Flemming/Peter Filardi flick so scary-good has more to do with its human elements than its supernatural ones (but those are pretty cool, too).

The Craft touches on topics like bullying, racism, sexual assault, body image, self-harm, depression, addiction, domestic abuse, poverty, sex-shaming, and teen angst through direct and often frightening ways. For a movie about teen witches, things get unusually real.

The Craft also gave me a deeper appreciation for horror, pulling me in by putting me in touch with my own budding fears. I grew to appreciate the motifs that make it so dark, so honest, and so influential in its genre.

Thanks to films like Black Sunday; The Witches of Eastwick; Bell, Book, and Candle; The Witches; and Hocus Pocus, The Craft had some very big and pointy black boots to fill in 96. Most of the movie seems keenly aware of its most powerful elements: otherness and girl power.

For many girls, witches are our first brush with any depiction of feminism and the price women pay in searching for control over our lives.

Angelica Jade Bastien, Vulture

While parts are undeniably “campy,” The Craft offers up viscerally vulnerable moments to balance things out. Unsurprisingly, the true-to-life scare tactics hold up way better than its special effects. But that’s not to say the effects were all bad!

There’s Something Special About Those Special Effects

Remember the endless piles of snakes that looked alarmingly real near the end? That’s because most of them were real. As it turns out, so were a lot of those creepy crawling bugs, tarantulas, maggots, roaches, scorpions, and rats.

Care to refresh your memory (or maybe have nightmares)? Check out the clip below and “relax, it’s only magic.” Movie magic, that is.

Youtube/Columbia Pictures

Real reptiles aside, The Craft explores the intimate side of fear–namely, the things we fear about ourselves, the things deemed “wrong” by others. Adding to its realness, Flemming made sure all depictions of Wicca were as close to authentic as possible. Throw in that 90s nostalgia-packed soundtrack, high school hallway slo-mo walks, and quintessential LA backdrops, you’ve got a time-capsule potion that’s impossible to replicate.

But it never hurts to try.

Conjuring Up a New Wave of Witches

In the 90s, The Craft reopened Hollywood’s door to the “teenage girl occult” plot. Onscreen, every televised witch in training was coming into their powers and grappling with who they were.

In the years that followed, Sabrina The Teenage Witch and Charmed made well-received debuts. Alyson Hannigan joined the cast of Buffy The Vampire Slayer as Willow, budding teen witch and Buffy’s closest confidante. Eve’s Bayou debuted in 1997, Practical Magic came out in 1998, The Blair Witch Project became a cultural phenomenon in 1999, and Harry Potter was on the way to dominating the muggle world.

American Horror Story cashed in with the Coven season, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina kept the tween and teen witch magic alive for 4 seasons. Even non-magical shows like Broad City and Pen15 made comical nods to dark magic. All along the way, The Craft secured its spot as an irrevocable part of pop culture.

Once upon a time, Robin Tunney discussed the movie’s eternal impact with Entertainment Weekly. “Somehow it still speaks to everybody’s inner teenage girl. I went to a bachelorette party where everybody had to bring their guilty-pleasure movies, and Natalie Portman brought The Craft,” she explained.

Along with receiving A-list actress “guilty pleasure” approval, critics have been giving it a second look with its interpersonal impact in mind.

Critics Look at ‘The Craft’ Through a New Lens

Back in 1996, Roger Ebert called the cult classic “unimaginative,” but then he made an interesting point. “What I have always wondered about supernatural characters in movies is why their horizons are so limited. Here are four girls who could outgross David Copperfield in Vegas, and they limit their amazing powers to getting even.”

The reality is, this movie was about more than just getting even. Although, that’s an important part of the plot too. With “the times” in mind, some critics are more closely examining The Craft, viewing its theme of revenge as something deeper. Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29:

“Too often, women feel powerless to change circumstances — political, social, financial, take your pick — that feel beyond their control. The Craft presents a universe in which any slight could magically be made right, and in our current climate, that’s an appealing prospect.”

Then and now, The Craft is heavily about limitations, the responsibility that comes with power, karma, and justice. But there’s one element that falls painfully short, and critics aren’t letting it slide.

The Bad Witch’s Unfortunate Fate

When it’s all chanted and done, Nancy (Fairuza Balk) is too easily made the villain. Yes, she takes her power to “a dark place” and that darkness overtakes her. But… is that all there is?

While I would never call Balk’s character blameless, she came off more wounded than evil. She abuses her power, loses control, and poof, she’s a cautionary tale. I still get a chill when Sarah (Robin Tunney) warns Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True), “Careful. You don’t want to wind up like Nancy.” But these days, that line hits different.

Frankly, Nancy’s demise flatlines the movie’s true pulse. After stacking a deceptively layered deck, The Craft reinforces the annoyingly inescapable idea that at least one witch–the bad witch–must be punished. The decidedly doomed witch trope seems like an easy out for an otherwise empathetic movie brimming with a dark brand of girl power.

Nancy looking shocked at slumber party in The Craft
Columbia Pictures

Witch movies are compelling because they’re unapologetically character-driven. Whether we’re meant to root for them or fear them, witches are most often depicted as women who refuse to do as society instructs, demands, or expects. They’re also remarkably resilient creatures. Until, of course, they meet their brutally abrupt endings and pay for their crimes publicly.

When I watch The Craft now, I imagine an alternate ending where no one “burns the witch.” Nancy’s still a terrifying mix of volatile and vulnerable, but she’s not institutionalized or strapped to a gurney at the end. Given the chance, maybe she’d even be remorseful. As for the coven, it still disbands, but instead of parting as bitter enemies, they share knowing nods and then move on.

After all, who else really knows what it feels like for a teenage witch besides a teenage witch?

GIPHY/Columbia Pictures