Fairy tales starring Alicia Silverstone to the contrary, being 16 sucks. Watching movies about other losers suffering through being 16, on the other hand, is great — one of life’s rewards for having survived the actual catastrophe. But fast times in the ’90s demand higher stakes. And two new video releases comply, giddily, whipping up two very different, supposedly very contemporary reasons to be glad you’re not at Ridgemont High anymore: The Craft suggests that teens can take control of their lives, but they had better be really really, like, careful of what they wish for; Fear implies that losing one’s virginity can be really really, like, dangerous.
The Craft trades on an older premise; Carrie got there first, 20 years ago, wreaking bloody, witchy hell on her tormentors. But Carrie was a loner, whereas broody Sarah (Robin Tunney from TV’s Class of ’96, looking like Gillian Anderson’s younger sister), uprooted from home and plunked down in a coed Catholic high school in ooky-wooky Los Angeles, hooks up with a clique of three other girls — a coven in training — who induct her into their broomstick sisterhood. Each girl has a beef with the world: Sarah’s got a hopeless crush on an unworthy guy (Skeet Ulrich from Last Dance); Bonnie (Party of Five‘s Neve Campbell, in her first big movie role), scarred from a childhood car accident, feels ugly; black and beautiful Rochelle (Rachel True, from HBO’s Dream On) is taunted by snotty, racist white girls; Nancy (Fairuza Balk, pre-Island of Dr. Moreau), the totally wacko group leader, is a sullen, lewd, and charismatic misfit who’s just cosmically pissed.
The empowered young women do some effective revenge work for a while (Sarah’s crush returns the sentiment; Bonnie’s scars clear up and she feels pretty, oh so pretty, etc.). But Nancy, who wants world domination or something like that, won’t let up. And then things go scary-nutty, and Sarah has to break away. Just say no! That’s when this punk- and New Age-flavored lark (directed and cowritten by Threesome‘s Andrew Fleming) unravels into an old-fashioned John Hughes teen lesson: Don’t follow the herd. Oh — and don’t mess with evil.
The message is more complex and insidious in Fear. In this effectively erotic thriller from director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross and the upcoming The Chamber), Reese Witherspoon is cuddly soft as Nicole, a Seattle sweet sixteener ready for boys but fiercely guarded by her watchdog dad (William Petersen). Still, David (rapper/underwear model Mark Wahlberg), the boy who awakens her desire, at first seems nice. And certainly sexy; a scene of David arousing Nicole on a roller coaster is hot. But Dad has doubts, which turn into convictions, that the kid is serious trouble (David’s so dangerous, he drives a death-trap Corvair). Yet efforts to keep the two apart only push Nicole even more deeply into danger. David, of course, is deranged bad news. And Fear climaxes in a baroquely violent showdown as Dad defends the family against the crazed fury of a young man whose sexual hunger has gone out of control. The subtext: Just don’t do it. (I can’t even begin to translate the message to poor old dads.)
In the theater, The Craft‘s spells-and-candles sequences (and Balk’s leering gummy grin) looked big and jaunty, and Fear‘s syncopation of eroticism and terror took us on a juiced-up ride. On video, the two movies lose their fun-house edge but allow for more amusement, if not bemusement, at the conservatism of big-studio teen movies, now and forever. But at the risk of sounding like Michael Medved, I’ve got to add this magnified- on-video footnote: In The Craft, Fleming emphasizes Sarah’s alienation at St. Benedict’s Academy with a shot of the bleeding Jesus on the crucifix that hangs over the school door. In Fear, Foley conveys David’s screwed-up interior life by a shot of the walls of his lairlike room, which is dominated by… Jesus on a crucifix. The implication at which nobody bats an eyelash? Catholic symbols are a shorthand way of saying ”Beware, cuckoos at work!”
The other implication to be drawn? These big-studio teen movies are oh-so-sophisticated products of Hollywood.
The Craft: B-