Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Craft

(R, Columbia Pictures, 101 mins., theatrical release date: May 3, 1996)

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2015 is approaching fast, and I've been keeping up with the guest announcements and such. This is one of the most high-profile events in the three years I have attended, having missed seven previous conventions. The first year I went, I guess the biggest draw was Danny "Machete" Trejo, who packed such a crowd that I remember Mariel Hemingway referred to the line outside his photo op as the "Trejo 500." I wasn't in that line, honestly, as it was conflicting with my date with a princess...


But year two upped the ante in that it featured a full-scale gathering of personnel from the Terminator series, including Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Michael Biehn, Kristanna Loken, and Earl Boen. Even Hamilton's tormentors from the same year's Children of the Corn, John "Isaac" Franklin and Courtney "Malachai" Gains, were in attendance. I had a great time at that event, too, mostly because I spent it with a friend I made the previous year. And whilst I understood that the potential to top even that star-studded weekend celebration was possible, I had no idea what the 2015 roster would bring.

Suffice it to say, 2015 has done the same thing 2013 did in the presence of Diane Franklin: it has awakened the teenager in me.

I say that because the year marks the debut convention appearances of some of the biggest names from my 1990s childhood, particularly Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich, as in "Sidney Prescott and Billy Loomis from Scream." But you don't have to be Ghost Face to recognize that these two had made an earlier splash in 1996 before Wes Craven's self-effacing horror blockbuster laid bare the rules of horror both past and future. You don't even have to know who fellow first-time attendee Rachel True is, but it helps, because 2015 is when that old black magic comes to Dallas in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of The Craft.

Before Scream author Kevin Williamson archly intertwined John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) and Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) in the Robert Rodriguez-helmed The Faculty, The Craft stood out as the decade's most recognizable high school spookshow by injecting voodoo into the sardonic teen angst formula. This could charitably be called "Hexers," except that the central clique in this film aren't idle rich snobs but outcasts from the word go, a brooding collective of female misfits whom their callous peers have christened "The Bitches of Eastwick."

Or at least that's how Ulrich's Chris Hooker describes them to the new girl in town, Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), freshly relocated to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Sullen Sarah carries the trauma of a mother who died giving birth as well as suicidal slashes down her wrists, and is now forced to make a fresh start at St. Benedict's Academy, a parochial school just as ripe with classism and cruelty as any non-uniformed establishment. Sarah gravitates towards the terrifying trio, regardless, after nonchalantly demonstrating her powers during French class.

Chris will go on to slander Sarah as punishment for her not putting out, thus giving her all the reason to devote herself full-time to the supernatural machinations of her black sheep BFFs. They all seem to lack proper self-esteem for various reasons. Grand high Goth Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) has a sluttish reputation of her own and lives in a trailer with her alky mom and deadbeat stepfather. Meek Bonnie (Neve Campbell) has burn scars down her backside from a traumatic accident, whilst Rochelle (Rachel True) is the lone Negro student and susceptible to the catty insults of the mean blonde from Night of the Demons 2.

Séances and slumber parties ensue, with such ritualistic bonding exercises as blood oaths, beauty makeovers and the ever-popular "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board." All in the name of Manon, an all-powerful, all-natural deity who is described through analogy as the stadium God and the Devil would play football on. The girls pray their troubles away, and Manon hears them, and so, in quick succession, Bonnie's damaged skin tissue regenerates, Rochelle's racist bully develops female pattern baldness and Nancy goes from poor to posh after willing her penniless, perverted stepfather into a stroke and inheriting his life insurance funds.

All's well for them and for the audience, as The Craft fancies itself a playfully macabre twist on teenaged fantasy for a spell, or until the spell wears off. The conflict begins when the increasingly resentful Nancy decides she wants invoke Manon directly through a beachside bonfire and demand his almighty powers. The next morning, she walks on water as various aquatic mammals die on the sandy turf, all the while she screeches that these are her "gifts." Sarah is rightly perturbed, but her self-centered friends remain blissfully ignorant. And when Sarah's own wish to have Chris wrapped around her finger goes horrifically awry, Nancy takes it upon herself to get even by murdering him.

Gradually, The Craft reveals itself to be another grasp at slick, superficial morality from the ham-fingered writer of Flatliners. The naturally-crafted Sarah is elevated to Good Witch status as Nancy, tempting irony by the casting of ex-Disney child star Fairuza Balk, devolves into The Even Worse Than Worst Witch. And the two other girls are stripped of their integrity and rendered ditzy foot soldiers. This banal development compromises whatever slivers of rebellion and wit the film has accumulated, a celluloid sacrifice of the soul.

Flatliners at least allowed its bratty principals the divine method of closure, something Peter Filardi and co-writer/director Andrew Fleming push aside here for cheap tricks. Rochelle, in particular, is egregiously short-changed by the film's formulaic forthrightness. Part of that is down to the casting of Rachel True, who looks way too sophisticated and smart to play the fourth banana in a juvie horror film (and for good reason, as she was pushing 30). There comes a point in the film where Rochelle should arrive at the same epiphanies as Sarah, having seen the devastation her vengeance has wrought on Laura Lizzie. But when the film approaches some kind of intriguing opportunity for a truce, it fails to follow through, turning the focus over instead to the nutty Nancy.

Neve Campbell's Bonnie is undermined just as poorly. Right at the moment her confidence is restored and she is allowed to morph from Basket Case to Princess, Filardi & Fleming treat her sex appeal as a sign of snobbishness, with nothing in the script aside from the most innocuous one-liner (late for school, she sasses "Sorry, my pedicure ran late") to demonstrate this personality shift. This is no less one-dimensionally prissy than the attitudes of straw villains Laura and Chris, and speaks to the thudding, finger-wagging desire to shame which constantly reduces most teen films to rank hypocrisy.

The lead actresses as a unit demonstrate charisma the film doesn't fully capitalize on, with the possible exception of Fairuza Balk's vamp/tramp volatility. Balk's bee-stung sneer and outrageous overbite are impossible to deny as she devours the scenery with as much relish as this story eats its tail. The sensuous, green-eyed Robin Tunney works hard to compensate for the film's compromised intelligence, but even she cannot save The Craft from the perfunctory prophecy which is a prolonged siege confrontation replete with pools of maggots and miles of snakes, followed by a misguided coda which renders its characters as unsociably sour as their stigma suggested.

Like Joel Schumacher before him, Andrew Fleming relies on visual panache and trendy flash as the be-all-end-all. There is an extravagant, earthy texture to Alexander Gruszynski's cinematography which also meshes well with the digital FX work used for levitation and catching butterflies. Fleming has a liberal fluidity with the camera, and combined with Jeff Freeman's editing and the sound design, the centerpiece séance is the most bewitching moment of The Craft, so to speak.

Graeme Revell's score stings and swoons admirably, but is engulfed by the alt-rock song selection which teases Juliana Hatfield, Matthew Sweet and Jewel at best, and overemphasizes a handful of poor cover versions at worst. The film begins with Our Lady Peace's grungy, garbled take on The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and ends with Heather Nova listlessly draining the human touch from Peter Gabriel's "I Have the Touch." The makers of Charmed must have seen this and loved Love Spit Love's anemic retread of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" though. Maybe Charmed was the unofficial spin-off of The Craft the way Friends was meant to be "Singles: The Series"?

"Whatever!" seems like the right response, as The Craft labors under the pretense of authenticity to the Wiccan faith (the threefold karmic comeuppances in favor of "Do onto others...") but is grossly conformist at heart. Its rushed-upon-the-blade apathy is its tragedy, and although it is undemanding fun in the right setting, it does not honestly achieve the kind of magic which has kept it in cult circles for nearly two decades. E.C. Comics don't take themselves as seriously as The Craft double toils to.

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