By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Cailee Spaeny, Gideon Adlon, Lovie Simone and Zoey Luna
Written and directed by Zoe Lister-Jones
Back in late 1996, SCREAM may have permanently kicked the doors open for horror as a new box-office force, but seven months earlier, THE CRAFT (which shared star Neve Campbell) became a smaller but no less seminal hit, tapping directly into teen-female angst and serving it up with a heaping helping of the supernatural. Its young heroines, though bullied and/or outcasts, were not victims; they were the central, proactive figures, holding all the (Tarot) cards and empowering themselves via their embrace of the occult. No surprise, it became an enduring cult film, a gateway drug for a generation of horror-loving girls–making it, of course, an inevitable candidate for a modern remake.
Given the attention paid in current times to the self-actualization of women of all ages, there was plenty of fertile ground to till for an update of THE CRAFT. Zoe Lister-Jones, who wrote and directed THE CRAFT: LEGACY, has updated the material in several conspicuous ways, most notably by avoiding the aforementioned empowerment turning one of the group into a villain. And yet this reboot is a frustrating near-miss, bearing so many good intentions that you wish the movie as a whole had more impact.
Just as in the first, our heroine is a newcomer to the neighborhood: Lily (Cailee Spaeny), whom we meet being driven to their new home by her mother Helen (Michelle Monaghan), the two of them singing along to Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” (There’s lots of pop-music signifying throughout the film.) They’ve come to live with Helen’s new beau Adam (David Duchovny) and his three handsome, Biblically named sons, the latter of which might be a bit of warning sign; another may be the framed magazine story on author/motivational speaker Adam, which is headlined “Man Up.” But Lily’s real problems begin on her first day of school, when she has her period during homeroom, to the mockery of her classmates.
Lister-Jones isn’t just appropriating the classic opening of Brian De Palma’s CARRIE here; her message is in the reactions to it. It’s the guys who taunt and tease Lily about it, and when she flees to the bathroom, she receives help and support from three girls: Frankie (Gideon Adlon), Tabby (Lovie Simone) and Lourdes (Zoey Luna). As we’ve seen in a prologue, the trio have been dabbling in witchcraft, but need a fourth to realize their full strength. They’ve evidently found one in Lily, whom they soon witness giving a big psychic shove to male-chauvinist jock Timmy (Nicholas Galitzine). “We’re witches, and you’re a witch too,” one of them tells Lily, and it’s pretty much that simple: Soon the four are in the woods and their bedrooms, reveling in their spellcasting power and giggling about the possibilities. The movie takes their abilities for granted, which robs LEGACY of the dramatic sense of discovery that powered the original. The ’96 film also did a lot more to delineate its four leads, and their particular reasons for embracing the occult; here, Tabby is black, Lourdes is trans, Frankie is…the other one, and that’s about it. Each has just a few lines to articulate their desires and frustrations; Tabby wishes, for example, that her brother didn’t have to be scared all the time, but the provocative possibilities are never followed up on.
Instead, the quartet focus their attentions on Timmy, taking a more progressive approach than simple revenge: They cast a spell to make him a better person. Next thing you know, he’s a Sensitive Male, lecturing the other dudes about proper behavior and spilling his feelings, and as written by Lister-Jones and played by Galitzine, he’s LEGACY’s most entertaining creation. He’s also, it turns out, the most developed character in the movie, which unbalances the story a bit. And if you’re thinking that none of this sounds especially scary, you’re right. It’s almost an hour before THE CRAFT: LEGACY starts acting like a horror film, and even then it’s a false alarm. Without a full-on antagonist arising within the group, the movie manufactures a conflict between them (“Was all of this like some game to you?” Tabby asks Lily, and…yeah, that’s kind of how it’s been portrayed), and then pits them against an outside (and miscast) enemy.
Clearly, Lister-Jones’ goal was to tell a story in which girls finding their inner strength, and the means by which they do it, is nothing to be feared, and it’s an honorable approach to a new version of THE CRAFT. Yet as it eschews any wicked bad-girl appeal, the film lacks true excitement or surprise. Beyond Timmy’s transformation, its ideas don’t feel fully fleshed out, and one actually wishes for a longer version that would allow them to achieve full flower. Certainly, an extended cut is possible; the trailer contains several shots that don’t appear in the movie itself, including one that gives away the final-scene surprise. This revelation clearly points the way to a follow-up film, but not waiting so long to address it, and its ramifications, might have definitely benefitted this one.