The Craft & The Craft Legacy: A look back at 90’s Queer Cinema.

I’ve made it no secret that I am a pretty ardent horror fan. I was raised on 70’s slasher cinema, developed a deep fondness for J-horror in my teens and grew to love the sadistic pleasures of the French extremity movement during my years at University. Even to this day horror cinema still manages to surprise and delight me. Be it Ari Aster and his penchant for gruelling arthouse horror or  Jason Blum (the Bezos of horror) and his current monopoly on the mainstream. I will never not love horror movies.

So lets talk about The Craft

1996 was a seminal year for horror. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven changed the game for a lot of us with their landmark title Scream – a subversion of expectations in the purest sense – that in many ways forced us to be introspective on what was, by then, a tired and ugly genre to be a fan of. From Dusk Till Dawn, The Freighters, Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering – horror fans weren’t short on excellent options in 1996 (ok so maybe not Children of the Corn). But it was one film that, for me, a young queer boy sinking into the quagmire that is puberty and self-hatred, had me screaming with joy.

The Craft 1996 is not a perfect film. It’s disastrously 90’s – right down to its Garage band heavy soundtrack (Our Lady Peace – really?), its indecently hip dialogue as well as its staggeringly garish goth aesthetic…but god damn if I don’t love it.

It’s success comes, mostly, from it’s earnestness – it’s a critical and accurate portrayal of what it means to be different in a landscape where being different could get you killed. If you were to watch this film without a critical lens you could very easily ignore the impact this movie had, not only on queer cinema, but also a generation of young, queer kids who – still reeling from the effect the AIDS pandemic had on us – were only a mere two years away from the brutal killing of gay teen Matthew Shepherd.

The Craft is the story of Sarah (Robin Tunney), Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Rochelle (Rachel True) and Bonnie (Neve Campbell). After transferring to a Los Angeles high school, Sarah finds that her telekinetic gift appeals to a group of three wannabe witches, who happen to be seeking a fourth member for their rituals. Bonnie, Rochelle and Nancy, like Sarah herself, all have troubled backgrounds, which combined with their nascent powers lead to dangerous consequences. When a minor spell causes a fellow student to lose her hair, the girls grow power-mad. Chaos ensues and the coven learns the error of playing with forces beyond their control.

The 90’s was a difficult time for the outcast. Our public image was self-defined, anarchistic and ultimately queer – The Craft helped me and a lot of young queer kids legitimate that queerness.

So close – yet so far…

If I were to launch any real criticism at the film it would be at it’s treatment of Rachel True’s character Rochelle. While The Craft may have paved the way for a lot of queer kids in the 90’s. Rochelle, an African American character, is uncomfortably and cruelly side-lined when compared to the other three gilrs. Speaking in the 2019 documentary Cinema Noir, True spoke of her time on set – being told that there wasn’t much else for her character to do other than for her to – be the black character. We see all the other girls in their Coven complete interesting and diverse character arch – while Rochelle – is the black kid.

While I hope that Rochelle had a deep and powerful impact on at least some black teenagers in the 90s. People quite rightly looking for a female, black heroin to look up to. I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers didn’t quite push this angle far enough for it to be truly resonant and memorable. At the very least, Rochelle feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Rachel True didn’t have a good time making cult classic but believes it is an important movie for black people in a sense that it was one of the first examples of real, earnest representation. In that sense Rochelle feels like a rather large step forward – with a couple of smaller steps back thrown in there.

It’s an immensely problematic element of an otherwise much beloved cult classic. One part Clueless one part Scream. The Craft 1996 delivers some genuine scares, a rich , detailed aesthetic and some immensely memorable and quotable moments.

If anybody listened to our Rocky Horror episode – you’ll know just how much I love queer/horror cinema. Not only with regard to its place in the current horror landscape but also the rich and storied histories of ‘the other’ or queer characters as they pertain to vintage horror cinema. The concept of the invisible queer in classic horror – the mind goes instantly to Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – demonstrates that we have always had a place in the genre – more often than not as the villain or the comedic relief. However modern cinema, beginning in the 90s, has attempted to paint us in a different light. Often as the misguided, unsung hero – tragic, flawed but ultimately human.

The Craft did a lot more for horror than it will ever be given credit for. It’s cult status – solidified by the goths and the freaks (many of us now in our late 20s and early 30s) who refused to bind ourselves to the obvious, heteronormative lifestyle society had planned for us.

So how does The Craft Legacy stack up in comparison? In a word? Meh.

Ok so that might have been a bit too harsh. I actually don’t hate this film at all. It’s impeccably faithful to the tone of the original, aesthetically it’s very pleasing and captures a similar visual flair to that of its 1996 counterpart, the characters – oddly enough – are more fleshed out than I ever expected. Even if they do, at times, fall into a similar trap of ‘representation over actual development’ with Zoey Luna’s trans character Lourdes (thankfully played by a trans actress) who’s fails to develop past the fact that they’re trans. Feels like a case of history repeating itself.

I love the representation in this film. It’s impressively diverse without seeming forced. It plays to the under-represented groups of this, our modern society, the same way the orginal did for all us 90’s kids. And for the majority of the film I was here for it. The kids were cool without being obnoxious, the style and tone was hip without being offputting to us oldies and the dynamics between the girls in this new coven are electric – there is genuine chemistry between each of these character.

The Craft Legacy follows Lily (Cailee Spaeny) as she relocates with her mum into her new home – living with her stepdad and his sons. At the same time our new trio of witches Frankie (Gideon Aldon) Lourdes (Zoey Luna) and Tabby (Lovey Simone) are struggling to master the basics of the craft – that is until their Spidey senses start tingling revealing to them that Lily may indeed be the fourth member of the coven that they’ve been searching for.

So what’s the problem then – I hear you ask?

Ultimately, The Craft Legacy stumbles due not in part to its content, or its style, or its actors. The Craft Legacy truly begins to unravel due to its willingness – or unwillingness – to say anything of value or add anything new to the conversation at all.

The script is mind bogglingly flimsy. It ushers in half-baked villains that gain most of their motivation through standing back and looking menacing. Many of the seemingly important plot threads are dropped without mention and the purpose or message this film seems to be trying to make is D.O.A. The impressively diverse cast of characters are all mostly wasted, the minorities killed at the first sign of any true development – or in the case of Zoey Luna – undoubtably one of the best actresses in the film – left to the side-lines for the majority of the films runtime.

It’s a real shame that this film loses it’s way so spectacularly. The first act captures a lot of the magic that the first film delivered so effortlessly. Encapsulating the trials and tribulations of all of our teenager years with grace and with finesse. It set itself up to be the coming of age drama for this generation that the orginal was for mine – adeptly navigating teenage like for a new generation of outsiders.

Imagine my disappointment then when, seemingly in a moment of creative bankruptcy – we leave all semblance of drama, intrigue or character development in exchange for angst, poorly plotted family issues and lazy, underwhelming action set pieces.

Which brings my swiftly to my main criticism of this film. For all of the praise I want to give it for its aesthetic – the visual effects are decidedly b-grade. Never is this more evident than in its poorly staged, ugly final set piece that pits our four witches against their antagonist in a laughably cgi-heavy scene that looks like it was made for TV.

Its disappointing that a film that started with such promise would find it’s second and third act so bogged down with uninteresting, pointless melodrama; and I know what you’re about to say. The Craft 1996 also ended with a cgi-heavy action set piece that was no less dumb or stupid as this one. And sure – I can’t really disagree, only to say that at the very least there was a great deal of emotional weigh tied to the characters in that finale…here, its a whole lot of who really gives a shit. After a bewitching opening – this Craft sequel finds itself lost in the woods.

I do hope that there are teenagers today, queer, black, trans, cis, straight – whatever it may be. Who resonate with this film. I really do hope this helps a kid struggling with their identity come to terms with what may be the most difficult, weighty decisions of their young life. For me, it rang through as hollow – a good attempt that rather quickly turned into no attempt.

Do I hate this movie? Not really. Its not compelling enough to elicit any real emotional response from me. Which is sad -because I hold the original in such a high esteem. It just feels a bit empty, a film with good intentions ultimately let down but poor decision making and an ever present air of pointlessness.

What I would recommend – to the youth of today – still discovering themselves in the tumult and turbulence of 2020 – is this. The Craft 1996 is still a wonderfully weird, intimate and intense rollercoaster of teenage angst done well. It’s aged a bit in its 24 years on this planet, the way it ignores racial bias is highly problematic and it borders on camp far more than I remember…but unlike the 2020 film, the original has left a legacy. A real legacy for the misunderstood, queer goth kid who just wants to dabble in a bit of black magic from time to time.

The Craft 1996:

Rating: 8 out of 10.

The Craft Legacy: 4/10

Rating: 4 out of 10.

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