Released just seven months before Scream “saved” the horror genre from the doldrums of the 90s, spunky witchcraft chiller The Craft was often overlooked as the film that also reminded studios of the power, and profitability, of setting scary movies at the scariest place on earth: high school. It was a surprise jolt for teens at the time who, save for Clueless the previous year, had been starved of films populated by characters of a similar age since the work of John Hughes and those who emulated him in the previous decade. It felt fresh and contemporary in a way that so few films did at the time, centering teens and dismissing adults, a simple yet magnetic formula that gave it an immediate, impassioned fanbase who felt spoken to rather than spoken down to.
But as was often the case with so many female-fronted films of that era, and so many other eras, it was a story about teenage girls told by two men, a fact that didn’t necessarily affect its quality (I was part of that aforementioned fanbase) but one that places it in stark contrast to its long-awaited sequel The Craft: Legacy, receiving a last-minute digital release in time for Halloween. The continuation of the story, rather than a remake expected by many, comes from Zoe Lister-Jones, an actor, writer and director who has created a more specific and nuanced film, if not a more entertaining one, that takes a similar setup and gives it a 2020 spin, highlighting the importance of embracing intersectional female power while being aware of the dangers of toxic masculinity. It’s a bold and heady brew and one that will provoke ire from those who roll their eyes at the word woke but it’s one that proves intermittently intriguing while always ambitious, a refreshingly thoughtful, if flawed, alternative to a lazier rehash.
As with its predecessor, The Craft: Legacy is led by a new girl. This time, it’s Lily (Cailee Spaeny), moving with her mother (Michelle Monaghan) to live with her boyfriend (David Duchovny) and his three sons, met with a tense male frostiness at her new home. This unsettled feeling isn’t helped by an embarrassing situation at school when Lily gets her period during class turning her into a target for local bully Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine). But three friends – Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lourdes (Zoey Luna) – come to her aid and, with history repeating, see her as a potential “fourth” to complete their coven.
At the tail end of last year, a remake of the 70s slasher Black Christmas attempted to be the Horror Film We Need Right Now by subverting the set-up – sorority girls getting dispatched by a bloodthirsty male villain – into something that aimed to provide commentary on Trump-era gender politics and the ongoing curse of sexual violence on campus. But it was a clumsy misfire, constantly telling us what it was doing without really doing anything, a preachy thinkpiece rather than a fully realised film. Lister-Jones aims somewhere within the same ballpark but delves deeper, past mere buzzword-recital, with a more incisive script that feels more relevant to a generation of young women coming of age at a time of both extreme division and liberation, stuck between fury and freedom. Witchcraft has long been used to represent a form of awakening for women, whether it be sexual or political or social, and Lister-Jones aims for all three, showing how a collective of young diverse women can use their power to understand who they are becoming as well as to combat nefarious forces, whether they be supernatural or of this world.
The true nature of the evil within the film is both and, at least conceptually, Lister-Jones does a decent job of interlinking the two, to use a very real and very male threat as a metaphor for something more fantastical. One of her smartest touches is in the girls’ revenge on macho bully Timmy, turning him into an ultra-woke defender of social justice without lampooning what that really means, ensuring that his transformation from mean jock to vulnerable empath doesn’t then also make him overly earnest and dry (his music taste and dancing abilities also improve). But it’s one of the few uses of magic in the film that really sticks, unlike in the original, and this is partly because of the decision to make all four girls virtually unimpeachable. It’s an understandable move, to use outer forces to create conflict but without any real tension or mischief within the group, there’s something juicier missing, the first film’s palpable danger of what magic can do never really seeping through here (it’s also sadly devoid of scares – no creepy crawlies this time). In the last act, Lily uses her magic for something more selfish but the dark amoral implications of what she does are never fully explored because Lister-Jones is too stuck to the idea of the girls being flawless heroes.
What truly drags the film down though is the damp finale, which turns them from heroes to superheroes, the plot falling in line with a structure done to death within the last decade, smoothing down the edges of the story into a familiar, and unexciting showdown, of superpowers. This need to fit into franchise fodder formula extends to a last scene surprise (that was teased in the trailer) which leaves the film on such a frustratingly abrupt note that I watched the credits expecting another scene. Film-makers hinging endings on sequels that have yet to be made or even given the green light is something of a curse, especially when done with this level of bluntness, leaving the film unfinished and the audience unfulfilled.
There’s ultimately too much in the film’s rushed 94-minute runtime for anything to really breathe. The four young women are all excellent but apart from Spaeny (who gives another note-perfect performance after stealing the entirety of Devs), none of them are allowed the time for any real story of their own or even any notable characteristics to distinguish them from each other. The villain of the week plot positions the film as more of an extended pilot and I kept wishing it was allowed an eight-episode season on Netflix so that Lister-Jones could slow down a bit and allow her nifty ideas the time to blossom. There’s so much here, too much here, that while being impressed at times, I left feeling undernourished, like I’d fallen asleep and missed a chunk of the film. The witching season is back but I wish it could have lasted a bit longer.
The Craft: Legacy is now out on digital platforms in the US and in cinemas in the UK on 28 October