“We are the weirdos, mister.”
More than any other line of dialogue fromThe Craft, this quote captures the lasting appeal of the seminal teen classic. Released on May 3, 1996, writer-director Andrew Fleming's ode to teenage pariahdom finished No 1. at the box office in its opening weekend, surprising industry onlookers and beating out the heavily-hyped Pamela Anderson starring vehicle Barb Wire. Though both films featured woman protagonists, they couldn't have been more different; while Anderson's outsized brand of femininity was designed to service the male gaze, The Craft was a film about teenage girls, for teenage girls. Unlike Amy Heckerling's candy-coated Clueless — the standard-bearer of mid-1990s teen cinema — it dove headfirst into the darker undercurrents of the young female psyche.
While not a hit on the level of Heckerling's film, The Craft made a decent return at the box office and found even more success in its post-theatrical run, where it brilliantly captured the angst-ridden zeitgeist of the post-grunge years. Even 20 years later, it continues to be discovered by new generations of middle-and-high-schoolers who recognize something of themselves in the film's core group of outcasts: rage-fueled rebel Nancy (Fairuza Balk); damaged newcomer Sarah (Robin Tunney); playful outsider Rochelle (Rachel True); and timid burn victim Bonnie (Neve Campbell).
Make no mistake: it's not just girls who are and have been so compelled. As a self-loathing, socially maladjusted teenage boy, I felt an electric sense of connection with Nancy, the pale-faced goth whose inner demons find their dark expression in the Manon-bestowed powers she comes to wield.
Speaking of Nancy, Fairuza Balk made a powerful impression in the role — so powerful, in fact, that it boxed her into an archetype that she was never able to break out of, despite turning in compelling performances in such later films as American History X and Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. While she easily has the meatiest role here, each of the four lead actors brought something specific and sympathetic to their respective roles, be it Rachel True's wry comic sensibilities as Rochelle; Robin Tunney's caustic energy as Sarah; or Neve Campbell's poignant vulnerability as the scarred, withdrawn Bonnie.
Director Fleming was only 30 years old when The Craft hit theaters, and perhaps due in part to his relative youth, he demonstrated a real affinity for working with young actresses that would be demonstrated again with Dick, a Watergate comedy starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams that he made three years later. Particularly in the film's first two-thirds, he strikes just the right balance between levity and darkness, the latter showcased most poignantly in a riveting late-second act scene that sees Nancy turning the tables on football hunk Chris (Skeet Ulrich) while screaming, “The only way you know how to treat women is by treating them like whores! Well, you're the whore! And that's gonna stop!” It is a moment at once cathartic and terrifying, potently laying bare the core of rage that seethes beneath the film's wish fulfillment conceit.
For those old enough to remember the movie's release in theaters, it is truly a solemn anniversary, as The Craft officially turns 20 years old today. Where oh where has the time gone? As Fleming told us during an interview to reflect on the film's two decades in the pop-cultural zeitgeist, “it feels like I made the movie five minutes ago.”
Along with Fleming and Rachel True, producer Douglas Wick also sat down with us to share his reflections on The Craft's development, production and legacy. All three have a clear, abiding love and respect for the film, but True in particular that love and respect comes with a slight edge. Clearly thankful to have won the role that made her a “name” actress, when I asked if she felt that the film changed her career in a significant way, she answered bluntly.
“No, because I'm black. So, no, to be totally frank. That's actually the truth. …It certainly didn't hurt my career. Has it helped? Yes. But did it do things it might have done for other people? No.”
True's testimony is a sober reminder that 20 years on, precious little has changed for black actors in Hollywood (witness this year's massive #OscarsSoWhite controversy). But despite her professional struggle, True remains grateful for her experience on The Craft, not least because it allowed her to portray a black character who spoke to her own experience.
“Part of why I loved getting The Craft, was like — this is the patois of my voice, this is how I grew up speaking, I guess middle class, and at that time, there were like a zillion sort of 'hood' movies,” she told me. “And they are awesome too, because that's a really valid story as well. But I never quite — when I was coming up, I just said, everything I see on TV is like sort of street and urban — 'urban,' and I hate that word — and I just thought, one of the things I wanna do is present characters and portray characters who could be anyone, they just happen to be black. …So on that level, I was really stoked to get it.”
When discussing a film about marginalized characters, it's worth remembering that one of the actresses involved faced a similar struggle in real life based solely on her skin color. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of a wildly-entertaining film that is in many ways a portrait of oppression, that's something worth noting.
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