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The Craft, now 20 years old, is a vicious love letter to teen girl rage

How the tale of witches gone wrong smashed teen movie expectations and became a cult classic.

Just your average, everyday teen witch dirtbags. (From left: Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Rachel True, Neve Campbell.)
Columbia Pictures

The Craft isn't your average teen movie.

The film — which came out 20 years ago, on May 3, 1996 — centers on Sarah (Robin Tunney), a lonely girl who moves to a new town and befriends a trio of outcasts (Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell, and Rachel True) who just so happen to be witches. And after spending some time with her new sisters in crime, Sarah realizes that she, too, has magical abilities — maybe even more than they do.

At first, their ad hoc coven is all fun and games and casual revenge plots. The girls make secret plans, skip school, and combine their powers to wreak havoc on their classmates. Once neglected on the sidelines, these high school girls become so powerful that they practically get high on their own abilities. But then, as they start to turn on each other in the pursuit of becoming even more unstoppable in the eyes of their high school and beyond, their new and improved lives come crashing down around them.

If we're in a golden age of television now, the 1990s were a golden age of teen movies, rooted in high school melodrama. The decade's abundance gave us such genre-spanning gems as the seminal meta-horror movie Scream (1996) and the classic romantic comedy Clueless (1995), as well as a rash of raunchier high school makeover comedies like She's All That (1999) and American Pie (1999).

But The Craft — which features Scream's Campbell and Skeet Ulrich, not to mention Empire Records' Tunney — had no interest in portraying the high school experience with any semblance of polish. All of its characters, from the heroines to their dirtbag peers, are presented at their rawest, for better and for worse. It's messy, visceral, and, above all, a hell of a lot of fun. When a concerned bus driver drops the central foursome off in a remote location and advises them to be careful around potential "weirdos," they just grin: "We are the weirdos, mister."

The film's unabashed portrayal of teen girl angst helped it become a cult classic, beloved by many to this day. But the real reason The Craft endures is that one of the witches committed so hard to the movie, you can practically feel her vibrating off the screen.

Fairuza Balk's performance as Nancy — Sarah's eventual nemesis, once a rift forms within the group — is such a force that when she whirls around to face us, you can practically feel the heat of her scorching glare. With a shock of black hair above her startlingly blue eyes, the character is passionate, ambitious, disgusted, and, most of all, furious. She spits rage at everyone in her path, whether friend or foe. She has so many feelings that she physically cannot contain them. She's the patron saint of vengeance, and you better pray she doesn't have you in her sights.

Balk was apparently so convincing in the role that even her co-stars were a little afraid of her. "My memory is that Fairuza ... was actually into witchcraft," Tunney recently told the Guardian. "Maybe, in the moment, I believed it all, too." Director Andrew Fleming has even said that during one crucial take, Balk (in character) invoked a spirit — and the set immediately lost power.

While you could label just about all of Balk's scenes as electric, the most infamous example is (rightly) the one in which she kills Sarah's old crush Chris (Ulrich) in a blaze of righteous fury:

You see, Chris had been hounding Sarah in the aftermath of a love spell gone awry so intensely that when she went out with him, the date ended with him attempting to rape her on the side of the road. The second Nancy learns what happened she's out the door, a tornado of sizzling wrath.

Nancy has already cornered Chris by the time Sarah finds them, and for a second it looks like Nancy might let him off the hook with a smirk. But then Chris accuses her of being jealous, and seals his fate.

"Jealous?" Nancy repeats. "Jealous? You don't even exist to me!" Then, quieter: "You don't even exist. You are nothing. You are shit." The scene cuts to Nancy's levitating boot tips scraping the floor, slow and agonizing, as she closes in on the terrified Chris.

Nancy delivers her death sentence straight to the camera, staring us down as she grins maniacally. "The only way you know how to treat women is by treating them like whores, when you're the whore! And that's gonna stop."

Chris stammers that he's "sorry," and Nancy just laughs. "Oh, he's sorry? He's sorry, sorry, sorry—"

I don't think I ever understood the phrase "all hell breaks loose" until I stared into Balk's sparking eyes at this moment. Watching her express this rage is stunning; usually when a teen girl expresses anger in a movie, it's in the form of brief tantrum that quickly subsides. But here, Nancy is completely consumed, and the second she lets go, there's just no stopping her. In embracing all her vicious glory, Balk's Nancy becomes just as exhilarating as she is terrifying.

The Craft is currently available to watch on Netflix and Amazon Prime.