Casting a New Spell: Remaking The Craft

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In this entry, I consider the ongoing significance of the teen horror film The Craft, and talk about my wishes for the ideal remake.

Trigger/content warnings: This entry contains discussions of racism (including racist slurs), ableism, misogyny, bullying, mental illness, suicide, self-harm and homophobia.

The Craft is an American teen horror film from 1996 about teen girls and witchcraft. At the opening of the film, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Rochelle (Rachel True) and Bonnie (Neve Campbell), misfit girls at a Catholic high school in Los Angeles, have formed a witches’ coven devoted to Manon, a nature deity older and more mysterious than either God or the devil. However, their efforts to perform magic have been fruitless, as it seems that Manon is not listening to them. The storyline kicks off with the arrival of a new student named Sarah (Robin Tunney), who has a dark past.

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Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney)
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Bonnie (Neve Campbell)
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Rochelle (Rachel True)
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Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk)

Sarah sees herself as responsible for killing her mother, who died giving birth to her. Sarah has an unspecified mental illness deriving from her grief and guilt about her mother, which manifests in intense hallucinations and caused her to attempt suicide by cutting her wrists. Noticing that Sarah has magical powers, the coven convinces Sarah to join them. Drawing on Sarah’s immense power makes the coven’s spells begin to work. The girls set about using magic to better their own lives. However, this leads to them committing acts of violent revenge against the people who abuse or torment them. Sarah tries to leave the circle, only to have her former friends turn on her and try to drive her to suicide.

The Craft drew mixed critical reception, but garnered popular acclaim, particularly with girls. It arguably influenced a massive surge of interest in Wicca and Earth religions among women and girls in the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s. The Craft influenced the themes and styling of later screen treatments of teen witchcraft, such as the television series Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Secret Circle, and the films The Covenant and All Cheerleaders Die, as well as films using the supernatural or paranormal as a metaphor for adolescent angst, like The Faculty and Ginger Snaps. While a direct sequel to The Craft was never released, Ginger Snaps does serve as a spiritual sequel in many ways, from the allegorical story to the styling of the girls to the fact that the neighbourhood the Fitzgerald sisters live in is called Bailey Downs, after The Craft’s protagonist Sarah Bailey and antagonist Nancy Downs.

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#funfact: Ginger Snaps takes place in the same universe as the sci-fi series Orphan Black

Owing to its status as a cult classic, The Craft has been revisited multiple times in popular culture of the past few years:

As a 2012 stage musical…

As a 2013 Cinespia event screening attended by thousands, including the original cast…

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As part of the inspiration for the Little Mix single Black Magic

As a drag show…

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And on 14 May 2015, Sony Pictures announced plans for a remake of The Craft. Since then, more information has come at a trickle. The film reportedly has elements of a sequel rather than a straight remake, taking place twenty years later and featuring a new coven of girls taking up the power that Rochelle, Nancy, Bonnie and Sarah discovered in the first film.

Many people online reacted with anger or scorn when the upcoming remake/sequel was announced. I, on the other hand, was delighted, because it solidified my reasons for writing an academic paper on The Craft’s significance. In 2016, I wrote a paper for the journal Girlhood Studies called “Loving and Cruel, All at the Same Time: Girlhood Identity in The Craft.” While the material that eventually became that paper grew out of material in my Honours thesis on girls’ friendships in teen film, the genesis of the paper actually came when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, watching a behind the scenes documentary on The Craft.

I first saw The Craft in 2004 and it utterly captured my imagination. However, I frowned when I watched the film’s Making Of featurette and heard the film’s producer describe the film as a story of girls coming into their sexuality. While I was coming into my sexuality myself when I first saw the film, I did not see that part of my experience playing out in its story. Had you asked me what thought the film was actually about, teenage Emily probably would have said something like, “It’s about friendship – how you’re alone for ages and then you find friends and it’s great because they understand you. There’s this point where everything is perfect before it all goes downhill again.” To me, this was a story as old and as primal as any myth or legend, because it was a story that I, as a teenage girl who struggled with making friends, had lived out multiple times.

This interpretation of The Craft stayed in my head for years, leading me to write about the film as part of my Honours thesis, and later for the Girlhood Studies journal. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the biggest reasons many girls identify so strongly with The Craft is because nothing terrifies a teenage girl like the idea of finding comfort and companionship before finding that your trust was misplaced.

It’s also noteworthy that while the four main characters have various issues that they contend with – racism, slut-shaming, mental illness, not being able to live up to conventional beauty standards, poverty, abuse, rape – these things are the springboard for the more fantastical story they take part in, not the sum of their experience. For girls who have experienced these issues, or similar ones, the idea that they could be the hero of their own story, instead of merely the cautionary tale in someone else’s, is extremely attractive.

While it is beloved by audiences of girls and women, The Craft has its detractors. Many have taken the film to task for portraying rape and sexual assault in a way which can be seen to promote rape culture – having Sarah cast a love spell on quarterback Chris Hooker as retribution for spreading rumours about her, effectively removing his ability to consent to sex, and Nancy using a glamour spell to disguise herself as Sarah so that she can rape Chris. There’s also the rather clunky portrayal of Laura Lizzie’s racism toward Rochelle, the ableist ending of Nancy confined in a mental hospital, and the girls’ aggression toward one another. It is for these reasons that I think we shouldn’t look on a remake or sequel to The Craft as a travesty or an insult. Rather, I think that reinterpreting the story for the modern day provides an opportunity to address some of the problems with what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable teen horror classic.

The rest of this entry discusses some of the things I want from the sequel to The Craft. For the sake of clarity, I’ve referred to the characters by name as though it is a straight remake, though I acknowledge that the girls will likely have new names, new characters and new issues to deal with.

Sexuality

Maria San Filippo has argued that “the mostly femme styling of the female leads and the lack of even a hint of sexual chemistry among them makes The Craft seem almost paranoid in its repudiation of gender nonconformity and same-sex desire” (2013, 139). While I love San Filippo’s book, I don’t agree with this reading of The Craft. Yes, the over-representation of femme queer women onscreen can be frustrating, considering how many different kinds of people inhabit queer communities. However, I think many queer women over the years have seen themselves in The Craft‘s characters, as people who are generally read as normatively feminine, heterosexual, cis women are not necessarily any of the above.

Further, the absence of M/F fan fiction from archives dedicated to The Craft implies that not everyone sees the main characters as lacking sexual chemistry with one another. Far from it seeming like the characters were no-homoing each other at every turn, sixteen-year-old Emily quietly interpreted Bonnie and Rochelle as having a tortured teen romance, which Sarah and Nancy were obviously way too self-obsessed to even notice. That, or Rochelle and Bonnie couldn’t act on their feelings because Nancy would use this against them in the way that she used her awareness of Sarah’s mental illness to hurt her. Thus, for teenage Emily, the fact that Rochelle and Bonnie were alive and still friends at the end of the film was a small victory.

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Look at these beautiful witchy villain girlfriends! They’ve learned absolutely nothing from this horrifying experience! *heart eyes*

The original film’s theme of adolescent alienation and marginalised identities means it would make perfect sense for one or more of the girls to be queer in the remake/sequel. I would be fascinated if one of the new teen witches were bullied due to being queer, or came to realise their sexuality during the events of the film. I would also love it if they used a specific label, such as bisexual, asexual, pansexual, lesbian, gay, queer, trans, etc.

Race

I would love it if more than one of the coven was a girl of colour (e.g. Rochelle is still Black, and Bonnie is Korean). It would also be super cool if more than one girl in the group were young women of colour, but from ethnic backgrounds that White audiences would read as superficially similar (e.g. both Sarah and Nancy are Latinx girls, but Sarah is Mexican and Nancy is Dominican).

Please God, don’t let the screenwriters try to “update the tone” by having the coven spew hipster racism (or sexism, or homophobia). The term “hipster racism” (also known as ironic racism) was coined in 2006 by Carmen Van Kerckhove at Racialicious in her article “The 10 biggest race and pop culture trends of 2006: Part 1 of 3” (sadly no longer available). The term refers to using racist language, words, stereotypes and jokes in an attempt to sound edgy, funny or sophisticated. S.E. Smith at This Ain’t Livin’ defines Hipster Racism thus:

Hipster racism involves making derogatory comments with a racial basis in an attempt to seem witty and above it all. Specifically, the idea is to sound ironic, as in ‘I’m allowed to say this because of course I’m not racist, so it’s funny.’

It’s an aspect of a larger part of the hipster culture, which wants to seem jaded and urbane and oh-so-witty. Using language which is viewed as inflammatory or not appropriate is supposed to push the boundaries and make someone look edgy, but it only really comes across that way to people who buy into that system. To everyone else, it’s just racist.

Writers of television and film often use hipster racism in order to shock audiences. A hipster racist character will often be introduced spewing racism with a completely straight face, only to have some tragic backstory revealed which “explains” the racism, thus serving, in the eyes of the writers, to make it okay.

I would argue that racist jokes, even when they are employed in an “ironic” way, serve to normalize racism, in the same way that rape jokes can work to convince rapists that everyone else thinks the same way that they do. It also serves to position the racists as the put-upon, disadvantaged ones. To quote Debra Dickerson:

However, vicious, brainless, knee-jerk, or crudely racist a sentiment may be, once it is repackaged as merely “un-PC” it become heroic, brave, free-thinking, and best of all, victimized (2008, 63).

A prime example of hipster racism is Emma Roberts’ character in Scream Queens, who is introduced babbling racist stereotypes dating back to Gone with the Wind. Frankly, listening to that crap made me want to barf on the shoes of whoever wrote it. I wasn’t interested in sympathising with someone who talked like that, even as a joke.

While Laura Lizzie in the 1996 version of The Craft was racist in a very awkwardly written way, what I enjoy about that portrayal was that it was shown to be wrong. The audience wasn’t positioned to giggle in scandalised delight and imagine themselves having the freedom to also say horrible things with no repercussions. Instead, Rochelle was shown hurting after Laura bullied her. I would argue that the clunkiness of the dialogue actually helped with this: nobody is about to put “I don’t like Negroids” on a t-shirt, because it sounds as stilted and awkward as it is horrible and disgusting.

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Racist Marcia Brady was precisely no-one’s favourite character.

If racism is part of the storyline in the remake/sequel of The Craft, it would be wonderful if it was portrayed with more nuance, in order to honour the experiences of women of colour in America. However, it’s crucial to make sure that the racism itself is not portrayed as forbidden, cool and edgy. Racism isn’t about saying naughty words, it’s a pervasive system that hurts, disadvantages and even kills people. Nobody should want to be part of it.

Plot

If the characters in the new film use social media, I hope that the screenwriters for the remake/sequel at least consult with actual young people regarding the role of social media in their lives. I have yet to see a really thrilling horror film about the Internet and social media – most of the time, it tends to feel a bit toothless, as though it was written by someone who thinks social media is all a silly waste of time. For the remake of The Craft, either use social media as a story element that feels vital and terrifying, or don’t use it at all, because the last thing I want is for the remake to feel as though we’re meant to look down on the girls for being stupid, rather than feeling for them or fearing them.

One of the things that I love about The Craft is that there is not much usage of catch-phrases. The girls say, “You know, in the old days, if a witch betrayed her coven, they would kill her” rather than, “Your wedding will be huge, just like your ass at prom” or “I’m going to make you my wee-otch!” An example of how not to do a confrontation in a teen horror film can be seen in Jennifer’s Body, where the penultimate battle between the teenage succubus Jennifer and her former best friend Anita took place in a promisingly creepy environment, but involved the girls making menstruation jokes, which sucked all the tension out of the scene.

The Craft‘s horror was effective because it played the scary scenes as just scary. When Nancy literally levitates with rage, scraping the toes of her pointed boots across the floor while snarling, “You are nothing, you are shit!” at the boy who spread ugly rumours about her and attempted to rape her friend, it doesn’t make you want to laugh at how ridiculous, stupid and shallow she is. It makes you want to hide, or cheer, or both. I hope the sequel/remake is able to continue that tradition.

Finally, I hope that the sequel is able to end in a surprising, disturbing, uplifting and/or just plain different way. Many people take issue with the 1996 version of The Craft‘s ending, regarding it as ableist or misogynistic. It’s worth noting that the original film’s ending was subject to changes throughout the production. The film’s Wicca consultant, Pat Devin, describes these changes:

In the original script, the characters of Rochelle and Bonnie, having realized that Nancy has totally lost control of herself, joined Sarah in trying to stop her. This resulted in a fight where Nancy, after threatening to slit Rochelle’s throat, ended up dead — impaled on a closet coat-hook: this led to a very long post-it note from me to [Andrew Fleming, the film’s director] to the effect that Nancy, who had been abused, neglected, molested and finally driven mad by attempting more than she was prepared for (a lot of this was much more explicit in the first script) was not intrinsically evil and did not deserve to die. Andy agreed and changed that (Yohalem 1997).

I don’t think The Craft‘s sequel necessarily has to end happily to improve on the original. Something that I appreciate about the original film is that the ending is extremely unsettling: Nancy has lost her mind, Bonnie and Rochelle do not seem to have admitted to themselves how appalling their behaviour has been, and Sarah is extremely powerful but seems to have closed herself off to trusting anyone again. For me, this uncertain and mostly unhappy ending honours that adolescent girls use their power over one another to build each other up, and to hurt one another deeply. To me, it made sense for the ending to be disturbingly open-ended, because under these circumstances, you can’t go back. But maybe, in a remake or sequel to The Craft, it will be possible to go forward.

References

  • Dickerson, Debra J. 2008. ‪The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • San Filippo, Maria. 2013. “Power Play/s: Bisexuality as Privilege and Pathology in Sexploitation Cinema.” The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 94–151.
  • Yohalem, John. 1997. “Interview with Pat Devin on the Movie, “The Craft”.” http://web.archive.org/web/19991012153145/http://cog.org/nextgen/thecraft.html (accessed 25 August 2014).
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