"The Craft" cleverly--and brutally--imagines what would happen if several unhappy girls at a fictional L.A. Catholic high school, declaring themselves witches, could actually tap into malevolent supernatural powers. The young women are naturally thrilled to even some scores, but predictably the whole thing gets out of hand in gory fashion, occasioning lots of gruesome, nightmarish special effects.
If it's hard to imagine anyone much over high school age getting a kick out of all this numbing violence and terror, it must be said that "The Craft" is well-made with a hard-driving pace. It places heavy demands on its four lead actresses, who come through in impressive fashion. Director and co-writer Andrew Fleming makes sure he and his stars deliver the goods.
Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True), who've been dabbling in witchcraft, zero in on the new girl on campus, the beautiful Sarah (Robin Tunney). Her troubled personal history, plus a cruel incident with an oafish football star (Skeet Ulrich), make her vulnerable to the trio.
Pretty soon Sarah, who seems to have some natural psychic powers, becomes caught up in their attempt to create magic of an increasingly ominous nature, despite the sage warnings of an occult shop owner (Assumpta Serna). As the ringleader, Nancy is a dangerously disturbed individual with a dominating personality who inevitably will become caught up in a classic struggle between good and evil with Sarah, who soon wants to break away from the circle.
Balk brings a scary, manic intensity to the insanely jealous Nancy. Tunney shows us an intelligent Sarah gathering strength to stand up to Nancy, whose desperation rapidly breeds evil. Ulrich shows us that Chris has a surprisingly decent side, and Helen Slater, as Nancy's trashy mother, contributes a couple of moments of welcome humor. You can admire the considerable expertise and clear dedication that went into the making of "The Craft," but you may have trouble actually enjoying it.
* MPAA rating: R, for some terror and violence, and for brief language. Times guidelines: The film is likely to give children nightmares.
Fairuza Balk: Nancy
Robin Tunney: Sarah
Neve Campbell: Bonnie
Rachel True: Rochelle
A Columbia Pictures presentation. Director Andrew Fleming. Producer Douglas Wick. Executive producer Ginny Nugent. Screenplay by Peter Filardi and Fleming; from a story by Filardi. Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski. Editor Jeff Freeman. Costumes Deborah Everton. Music Graeme Revell. Executive music producer Ralph Sall. Production designer Marek Dobrowolski. Art director Gae S. Buckley. Set designer Natalie Richards. Set decorator Nancy Nye. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.