TEEN MOVIES HAVE become a little more scarce since their
heyday in the 1980s, but the tradition that brought us Rebel
Without a Cause, Heathers, Fast Times at Ridgemont
High and now The Craft is still going strong. Teen
movies are a comforting, predictable form of entertainment because
they continually re-use the same set of basic elements: 1. The
cute but slightly out-of-it new kid; 2. A group of stuck-up popular
kids who engage in the occasional sadistic act with great relish;
3. A love story, usually between the new kid and a popular kid;
4. A fat, ugly or foreign kid who makes a friend or is transformed
in the course of events, and; 5. An episode of teenage rough-housing
that gets out of control, often resulting in the tragic death
of a poorly-drawn secondary character.
The trick then, to making a teen movie seem fresh these days,
is to put in something new, for God's sake. And boy, does The
Craft ever labor under the effort to come up with something
new. Ironically, it's in the very department of novelty that The
Craft falls into the traps that make it contrived and distancing.
When it does stick to the teen movie formula, The Craft
actually manages to be an engaging story of that horrible
microcosm of social life, high school.
The new kid, in this case, is Sarah (Robin Tunney), a nice girl
with the power to move number two pencils with her mind. The high
school is Catholic, and the kids wear uniforms, jewelry and, in
the case of Nancy (Fairuza Balk), a whole lot of black eyeliner.
Nancy and her two friends are rumored to be witches, and in no
time at all they've adopted Sarah as the fourth and missing member
of their coven. They're just wannabes compared to Sarah, who has
the force at her disposal and channels power down to all of them.
Before you know it, the little witches are casting spells that
make the popular girls rue the day they made that snide comment
in gym class.
The charming thing about the first part of the movie is that
it has the ring of truth. Teenagers really do get into
weird esoterica--whether Satanism or comic books or punk rock--especially
anything that carries with it a hint of escape or power. All the
girls in the coven have difficult lives, and it's easy to see
why they would try to change their destiny and influence events
out of their control. No one is being especially nice to them
either (remember the sadistic popular kids) and so, when their
spells start working, it's sort of great. Enough believable stuff
is mixed in with the fantastic that it's not too hard to buy the
fact that yes, these girls are witches. Okay!
Strong performances by the young actors and a reasonably good
script and direction also contribute to making the first hour
of this movie entertaining. Robin Tunney does a reasonable job
as the good girl Sarah, but it's really Fairuza Balk, pouty and
volatile as Nancy, the angry piece of trailer trash, who steals
the show. Not only is she the better actor, her character, a mixture
of vulnerability and evil, is just more complex and charismatic.
It must be true: Bad girls are more interesting.
After a while though, she gets really bad, and that's when my
interest in this movie began to drop off. Nancy goes from being
a lost little girl to a full-fledged monster. Her witch powers
swell, and apparently absolute power corrupts, etc., because once
she gets a taste of the fun, all she wants is to destroy! Kill!
It's from this late point on that The Craft attempts to
inject something new into the teen movie genre, and what it does,
basically is graft on a piece of a horror flick. Suddenly, there
are elaborate, disgusting special effects, and the characters
aren't acting like characters anymore. They're running around,
screaming, fighting, and of course, slashing. I was willing to
believe four disaffected teenage girls were witches, but I wasn't
willing to believe some of them had suddenly become so stupid
and nasty. Perhaps I know little of the ways of black magic. Still,
it seemed the movie had abandoned its original direction and had
begun to wallow in overkill for its own sake.