25 years ago, negative reviews of 'The Craft' dismissed it as 'unimaginative.' Today, it's a cult classic - but it was always important to viewers like me

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Debanjali Bose
·8 min read
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the craft cast 1996
Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Rachel True, and Neve Campbell in a scene from the film "The Craft" (1996). Columbia Pictures/Getty Images
  • "The Craft" was released 25 years ago this week, on May 3, 1996.

  • The movie about a group of teen witches got mixed reviews from critics at the time of its release.

  • However, it has since become a cult classic, spawning cosplay, fan merch, and a sequel.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

"The Craft" is easily one of the most important movies of my pre-teen years, and possibly the first film that led me to develop a life-long obsession with the horror genre.

About once a year, I rewatch the 1996 cult classic about a teenager, Sarah Bailey (played by Robin Tunney), who moves to a new town and becomes involved with a group of girls (Nancy Downs played by Fairuza Balk, Bonnie Harper played by Neve Campbell, and Rochelle Zimmerman played by Rachel True) at her school who dabble in witchcraft and worship Manon, a pagan god.

I enjoy the catchy one-liners, cheap special effects, and some genuinely terrifying scenes in "The Craft." Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with me - including several major critics who panned the movie on its initial release.

'The Craft' was released 25 years ago this week to decidedly lukewarm critical reviews

While some saw the movie's early appeal right off the bat, several major critics didn't have anything particularly good to say when "The Craft" was released in 1996. The movie currently holds a middling 55% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic with The Chicago Sun-Times, called the plot "beneath our interest," while praising the leads' performances.

"The movie's failure is one of imagination," Ebert wrote about "The Craft." "It tilts too far in the direction of horror and special effects, when it might have been more fun to make a satirical comedy about punk teenagers."

Rita Kempley of the Washington Post echoed Ebert in criticizing the movie's "unimaginative special effects."

"Despite all their toil and trouble, the tale leaves us more bothered than bewitched," Kempley wrote in the 1996 review.

Neve Campbell the craft 1996
Neve Campbell. Columbia Pictures

Michael Wilmington of The Chicago Tribune said "The Craft" was full of "cliches and storytelling blunders" and wrote it off as something "conceived like a trailer and written in exclamation points and [that] gets stolen by the cinematographer."

However, over the years, critics who revisit the movie have become more complimentary in their assessment of it, particularly when viewed within the framework of today's culture, where it takes on an even greater significance.

"Too often, women feel powerless to change circumstances - political, social, financial, take your pick - that feel beyond their control," Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29 in 2018. "'The Craft' presents a universe in which any slight could magically be made right, and in our current climate, that's an appealing prospect."

"As far as high school films go, this one is unapologetically dark," Cohen continued. "Tackling bullying, racism, poverty, body issues, abuse, suicide, sexual assault, and otherness in a way that doesn't feel like an after-school special.

Cohen added: "These are things that high schoolers deal with, and 'The Craft' gives them the weight they deserve, while arming its characters with unusual tools to cope."

'The Craft' went on to inspire future generations of witches - both on- and off-screen

Several movies and TV shows, like "Broad City," "Pen15," "Charmed," and "The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina" ("TCAOS"), have followed in the "The Craft's'" footsteps, exploring storylines related to witchcraft.

Some, like "Broad City," lean into humor with episodes that are one-off departures from the show's main storyline, while others, like "TCAOS" and "Charmed," build spells and the supernatural realm into the very foundation of the show.

The movie has had a similar long-lasting effect on modern witchcraft in real life as well.

In October, Time reporter Peg Aloi wrote that after the movie's release in 1996, young girls were "enthralled by its dark glamour" and many started looking into "witchcraft and paganism" which, decades later, has led to a "digital landscape" that's "full of teenage witches making a name for themselves, crafting trendy aesthetics on Instagram and hexing the moon via TikTok."

the craft
The coven in "The Craft." Columbia Pictures

As Aloi notes, the movie was released "at a moment of almost eerie cultural synchronicity" and can count pop culture and entertainment icons like "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) and the "Harry Potter" series as its contemporaries after a relatively occult-free '80s (which Aloi attributes to widespread fake rumors about satanic sacrifices and sexual assaults during that period).

'The Craft' has come to achieve cult-classic status, but it was always a favorite for fans like me

Robin Tunney the craft 1996
Robin Tunney. Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Despite its middling-to-negative reviews around the time of its release, the 1996 movie was a commercial success, making almost $25 million in box-office collections against a production budget of $15 million.

And "The Craft" has only grown in popularity and cultural appreciation in the last 25 years.

In 2017, Anjelica Jade Bastién wrote about the movie's "enduring legacy" for Vulture, highlighting "The Craft"-themed fan art, fanfiction, and cosplay that legions of adoring viewers have created over the years.

"'The Craft' earned a generation of devoted fans because of how it charts the friendship between these four girls," Bastién wrote. "Its tentative beginnings, the joys of its strength, and its ultimate downfall - in ways that ring true for any young woman who has had a sisterly connection grow painfully toxic."

Fairuza Balk the craft 1996
Fairuza Balk. Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

More recently, Fairuza Balk called fans' reaction to "The Craft" and her iconic character, Nancy (pictured above), "surprising" in a chat with the Los Angeles Times in November.

"At the time when we made this, I really had no idea it would land so hugely and it would be so influential to people," Balk said.

"I've had meetings with fans and letters and emails where [they tell me] Nancy really affected them deeply in their lives. Some fans refer to her as their spirit animal," she continued, adding that the movie's goal was to make Nancy (who does more harm than good with her magical powers) come across as "truly psychotic."

The previous month, Rachel True, the actress who played Rochelle, told AV Club about the importance of her presence as the sole Black character in the fictitious coven.

"Sometimes I think that even my ['The Craft'] costars don't understand what that role at that time represented for Black women and girls," True told the publication. "It wasn't about me so much as what it represented to other girls at that moment."

rachel true the craft 1996
Rachel True. Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

I count myself among the "generation of devoted fans" of "The Craft" that Bastién wrote about for Vulture.

Beyond the thrilling sequences (including one with Nancy, Bonnie, and Rochelle hovering several feet off the ground that left 12-year-old me both scared and utterly fascinated), I found it empowering to watch four down-on-their-luck young girls take control of their situation and change it.

Sarah takes revenge on a boy who spread vicious rumors about her by casting a spell on him that turns him into a groveling, obsessive fool.

Bonnie sheds painful physical scars.

Rochelle exacts revenge against a racist bully.

Nancy reverses her family's financial misfortunes.

They didn't need any boys, or parents, to rescue them.

Even in the last 40 minutes or so, when the movie takes an especially dark turn and the group starts terrorizing Sarah, she's able to get out of the situation and fight back solo.

No one comes to save Sarah and she doesn't need anyone's help.

This perfect mix of horror and empowerment has solidified "The Craft's" presence on lists of countless '90s movies and horror films to watch, and for good reason. The film feels far more progressive today than many other high-school movies released around the same time.

With its recent sequel - and the original film coming to HBO Max - a new group of fans will get to experience 'The Craft'

In another testament to the film's legacy, "The Craft" joins other popular '90s and early aughts movies, like "She's All That," "The Blair Witch Project," and "Heathers," getting a new sequel or reboot.

A follow-up film called "The Craft: Legacy" was released in October and follows the same basic plot as "The Craft" - four teenage girls wade a little too deep into the world of witchcraft before it backfires. However, the 2020 version has one crucial difference from the original: The girls all work together instead of antagonizing each other.

Hopefully, with the sequel reviving interest in the original (which is now available to stream on HBO Max), a whole new generation will chant the spell "light as a feather, stiff as a board."

Read the original article on Insider