It is a fact well-known in some circles that if Chuckie Finster from The Rugrats had ever grown up, he would have become Sarah, the teen protagonist in 1996's The Craft. Both ginger-haired and motherless, these two classic 90s characters never met a friend's plan for a good time that wouldn't prompt the response: "I don't know you guys..." Of course, this is adorable when Chuckie does it because he is a neurotic toddler who wears glasses. Sarah, though, is a goddamn teenage witch, gifted with magic powers she was born with rather than ones she earned through practice.
Teenage witches are supposed to be hedonistic hellions perpetually up to no good! And they would have been if Sarah's excellent cohort of fellow teen witches had their way—but in one of witchcraft history's many great injustices, Sarah is simply more powerful than her friends. That this risk-averse wet blanket is the moral center of The Craft is only the beginning of the film's many shortcomings. So come along dear sisters, enter the circle with perfect love and perfect trust while I ruin the highlight of every sleepover you went to between 1996 and 2001.
In the hallowed tradition of teen movie plot catalysts, we begin with our protagonist Sarah as the new girl in school. When a trio of well-accessorized teen girl goths rebuff her request to sit with them in science class, Sarah is understandably wounded—but then she makes the rookie mistake of befriending a teen boy named Chris. Chris is not just any boy, but a popular boy who is friends with a bunch of boneheads who'd just hijacked French class to be crude. The first biographical information we learn about the trio of witches comes from Chris. He declares one named Nancy a "major slut," and then mentions that the one named Bonnie has "burn scars all over her body, my friends have seen them but I haven't."
Chris then takes a pause that you'd think would be followed by his explanation of why the third girl Rochelle—notably the only black character in the film—is untrustworthy as well. But nah. He doesn't say a word about her, doesn't even say her name! Chris is either blatantly ignoring Rochelle's existence (racist!) or assuming that her blackness is evidence in and of itself that she's a ne'er do well like her friends (also fucking racist!). What any good protagonist would do in this situation is realize that not only is this boy a gossip (tacky when boys do it!), he also thinks that things like being a sexually active teen girl and having scars from an unmentioned but probably very painful childhood fire are grounds for distrust. Girl should have swiped left fast enough to sprain her finger but instead, because she sucks, develops a crush.
Teenage witches are supposed to be hedonistic hellions perpetually up to no good!
Sarah is a turncoat and befriends the girls anyway. She learns that they are indeed practitioners of witchcraft and is warned that Chris is bad news. We also learn that they worship a god named Manon, who is some kind of fictionalized God-Satan collab who is—red flag alert—a dude. Realizing that Sarah has natural witch powers and because they need a fourth person to unlock the next level in their witching game, the girls invite her to be in their coven. While any decent teen witch would thank her lucky stars that she landed a new outlet for her once-confusing magical powers and realize she dodged a bullet with Chris, Sarah instead declines their offer rudely and abruptly, and then goes on a date with him anyway. When she turns Chris down, he starts a rumor that they had sex and that she was a terrible lay. While the girls had every right to turn Sarah into a goat or make her hands smell like farts, they accept her back into the crew and get to witching.
One day the girls take a field trip to do an important magic where they all ask Manon for assistance with a spell that's important to them. Rochelle casts her spell on Laura Lizzie, a blonde student and unapologetic, confrontational racist who sabotages Rochelle at diving practice and calls her racial epithets. Bonnie asks Manon to take away the scars that cover a substantial portion of her body and cause her personal and social anguish. Nancy, a girl who likes to dream big, asks to invoke all the power of Manon so that she too, can be like a god. Sarah, because she has no actual problems, real ambition, or integrity, insists on casting a love spell on Chris.
It's when these spells start working that things besides Sarah's personal values take a turn for the worst in this dung heap of a film. The racist shitsack Laura Lizzie starts losing her hair, first a few strands at a time, then in huge clumps that she removes while crying in the locker room showers, where it's revealed that she's nearly bald. Bonnie gets an experimental surgery that successfully removes her scars and becomes a slut almost immediately. Nancy thinks that her spell isn't working until she comes home one night to find her mother and stepfather Ray fighting. When Ray moves to hit her mother, Nancy screams for him to stop and the electricity suddenly goes out and Ray is struck by a fatal heart attack. Under a love spell, Chris becomes deeply enamored with Sarah, starting with sheepish attempts to carry her school books and sit next to her in chapel, causing his dirtbag friends to make fun of him. Young man humiliated and subservient after being a prick—cool spell so far! But soon Chris's obsession grows, culminating in an attempt to rape Sarah that she narrowly escapes. Nancy takes being a pro-woman witch more seriously than any of the others, so she goes and pushes Chris the fuck out of a window to his death.
In a good movie about witches, this series of events would climax with the four girls dining on the blood of their enemies in celebration, praising themselves for asserting their value in a world that treats women like shit. But this is a bullshit movie about witches, so we instead get into the part of the movie that very heavy-handedly insists that the girls have gone too far.
Honestly, losing all your hair is a funny but ultimately mild punishment for being an unrepentant racist, but Rochelle sees Laura and like, feels bad. Bonnie becoming a slut is extremely cool and precisely what a good teen witch would do with newfound confidence but nooo, Sarah thinks Bonnie's become narcissistic and spoils her fun. And killing violent men who threaten the bodily safety of women should frankly be a requirement of all witches, but right after Nancy, a hero, kills Chris, Sarah cries to her father and says of her would-be-rapist, "He was a good guy underneath it all!"
Sarah the killjoy feminist traitor who would rather use magic to do things like change her hair color with the snap of her fingers or make her pencil levitate on her desk has had enough. "Chris and Ray are dead!" she exclaims as if their deaths were crimes rather than causes for celebration. "They deserved it," Nancy replies, correctly, as she always is. But since she isn't clever or good at anything, all Sarah can respond is, "Says who?" Well, gee, I don't know Sarah, maybe every credible witch who has ever suffered under the brutality of oppressive patriarchal norms. That's who! What on all of Manon's green Earth is magic for if not to circumvent the justice system that never adequately punishes abusers?
OK, so Nancy and the girls decide to kill Sarah, which is a little much. Being a total fucking loser and horrible feminist is bad, but not grounds for execution. And anyway, the girls don't succeed because Sarah finally uses her innate power to actually protect herself instead of for low-budget magic tricks on her school supplies. Rather than feeling gratitude toward her friends for pushing her to assert her true power, Sarah rejects Bonnie and Rochelle, and makes Nancy go so crazy she's locked up in a facility and immobilized with a straightjacket. Sarah could muster tears for her attempted rapist, but sees fit to remand a friend who stuck up for her countless times to the bondage and violence of psychiatric institutionalization.
The thing about The Craft is that its central theme is overwhelmingly common in culture: Girls who attain a modicum of power are inherently untrustworthy and dangerous. What's disappointing is that our sentimentality for the era and film creates a collective amnesia about what actually happens in the movie, which is misguidedly hailed as subversive feminist cinema. So the next time a friend suggests watching it for nostalgia or whatever, gently decline and suggest almost anything else that actually serves to empower women. Hell, you could even watch The Rugrats. Three-year-old Angelica was a more exemplary witch than the one you'll find in The Craft.