By Peg Aloi
At a time when witchcraft — not to mention women’s issues of power, autonomy, and identity — is such a prominent part of our cultural conversation, it’s disappointing that The Craft: Legacy doesn’t weave a more satisfying spell.
The Craft: Legacy, written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones.
The Craft (1996) was released just after the Satanic Panic era was beginning to die down, at a time when contemporary witchcraft was flourishing through books and magazines, if not movies. The decade of the ’80s was oddly devoid of occult media, especially given the proliferation of stories on TV and at the movies from the late ’60s through the ’70s about witches, demons, and the occult. In those days there were also articles in Look and Life magazines as well as real witches appearing on daytime talk programs like The Mike Douglas Show. 1990 got off to a weird start with Twin Peaks, and the occult gradually became a fashionable topic again. The Craft embellished its fantasy and horror elements with realistic details drawn from real-life contemporary witchcraft rituals, courtesy of a witchcraft consultant hired to help ensure accuracy. The film’s popularity wasn’t just inspired by its Goth fashions or pop-Goth soundtrack: the movie sparked an interest in witchcraft, drawing many teenage girls to Wicca (a modern form of witchcraft invented in the ’50s in England, and the basis for most witchcraft-related practices). The following year, Practical Magic (based on Alice Hoffman’s novel) became a hit, followed by the debut of the long-running TV series Charmed (loosely based on The Craft). Hollywood’s obsession with witches has barely abated since.
More than two decades later, contemporary witchcraft is all the rage in popular culture and across social media, not just in fictional narratives, but as a spiritual practice. Perhaps that’s why The Craft: Legacy called on three witchcraft advisers to ensure that no fans of the original or eager young witches could criticize the project’s authenticity. Written and directed by former actress turned filmmaker Zoe Lister-Jones (and produced by Blumhouse Productions, which is making a lot of horror movies these days), the film is less of a remake then a reboot. In fact, it is even something of a sequel, though we don’t find that out until the very end.
The plot is somewhat similar to the original’s, which follows a group of four teenage girls in a witches’ coven whose dabbling in the occult leads to danger and mayhem. A bravura performance by Fairuza Balk as Nancy, a girl who uses witchcraft to gain malevolent personal power, made the actress something of a cult figure. The Craft: Legacy begins almost identically to its predecessor: three young women perform a makeshift ritual with candles, crystals, herbs, and other implements. Shots of this intriguing action are interspersed with images of a fourth young woman on a cross country road trip with her mother. Lily (Cailee Spaeny) and her mom (True Detective’s Michelle Monaghan) are moving in with her mom’s new boyfriend Adam (David Duchovny) and his three sons. Lily is somewhat apprehensive about the move; she talks about having no friends, but she’s happy for her mom. There’s no mention of her father.
In contrast, the original film introduces Sarah (Robin Tunney) as a troubled girl who has attempted suicide at least once. She is moving cross country with her father (her mother died in childbirth). Yearning for a fourth member for their coven, the three witches (Balk, Neve Campell and Rachel True) see Sarah balancing a pencil by itself on her desk and know they have found their woman. The four delight in performing increasingly consequential witchcraft spells. Things go awry when Sarah thinks the others are becoming too power-hungry and they turn on her. This is similar to many a coming-of-age drama in which sisterhood’s bonds are strained. But the stakes are raised considerably when supernatural power is in the mix. The film’s message: witchcraft should not be propelled by bad intentions.
The Craft: Legacy makes Lily’s displacement more fraught because she has to share her home with four new (male) strangers: Adam’s two older teen boys are somewhat standoffish towards Lily, though the younger one is shyly friendly. Adam is a well-known author and motivational speaker, an expert on masculinity and its psychological underpinnings. A framed newspaper interview carries the headline “Man Up.” It’s an intriguing set-up for the story, which plays with notions of patriarchy and witchcraft as an antidote to male tyranny. Casting Duchovny is a cheeky bit of irony given his turn as conspiracy and occult-obsessed detective Fox Mulder on long-running series The X-Files, which premiered in 1993.
Lily’s first day at school turns disastrous when she gets her period in class. Her embarrassment is noticed by everyone, in particular a sexist jerk named Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine) and the three young witches Tabby (Lovie Simone), Lourdes (Zoey Luna), and Frankie (Gideon Adlon). Lily retreats in humiliation to the girls’ bathroom, followed by the trio, who offer to help her. The next day, when Timmy teases Lily in the hallway, she sends him flying against a row of lockers with a telekinetic burst of anger, not unlike the ones unleashed by Carrie White (played by Sissy Spacek) in 1976’s Carrie. This film doesn’t linger on the trope of magical power being unleashed by the onset of puberty, though the reference to the influential film is probably deliberate.
As the young foursome of witches ply their spells, they gain confidence and grow closer, breezing past their bullies and relishing their status as outcasts. Much like the original film, witchcraft is, at first, seen as a positive endeavor, conferring empowerment. In The Craft, an occult shop owner recognizes the girls’ descent into danger, and tries to intervene. This reboot offers no such motherly mentor (Lily’s mom lets her new beau call the shots), so the witches have to figure out their own ways of undoing what witchcraft has unleashed. This is not particularly convincing ,if only because it is too easy. It is hard to accept that these newbie witches are both improvising rituals and critiquing them almost immediately afterwards. Whereas the original offers a comeuppance for the girls’ reckless dabbling, The Craft: Legacy ultimately paints them as victims of a larger evil. Their use of magic is consequential, but also quickly abandoned.
That said, there are some things to like about this reboot, including a great performance by Galitzine as Timmy, a mean-spirited jock who, after having a spell performed to improve his behavior, sees the error of his ways and falls hilariously all over himself trying to be more sensitive. The aesthetics of witchcraft are pleasing here: not the Goth, naughty Catholic schoolgirl trappings of The Craft but an earthier, more natural approach, including a witchy box of tricks that Lourdes carries around, complete with powders, potions, and a small dagger. Lourdes is transgender, but this is merely mentioned in passing rather then inspiring an intriguing subplot (since witchcraft is presented here as a question of identity). Tabby only briefly mentions that she wishes she had more Black friends and that she fears for her brother’s safety. Why, when racist bullying was a major plot point in The Craft, didn’t this update wrestle with this topic? This is one of the film’s many missed opportunities; had there been, say, an extra fifteen minutes tacked onto the movie’s brief running time, these witches could have been given more depth and complexity. As it is, they came off more like mouthpieces than fully-fledged characters. At a time when witchcraft — not to mention women’s issues of power, autonomy, and identity — is such a prominent part of our cultural conversation, it’s disappointing that The Craft: Legacy doesn’t weave a more satisfying spell.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.