"You know, in the old days... if a witch betrayed her coven... they would kill her." - Nancy
Here we go, Shocktober 2019, and as usual there will be 13 Screams.
I thought I’d kick off the fun this year with a good old tale of witchcraft. Actually, this one’s pretty deceptive because at first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just another teenagers and witchcraft movie from the nineties, but seriously – this is no Sabrina The Teenage Witch.
This is a film that I guess was kind of a slow burner on its release, though if memory serves, it got a Fangoria cover, back in the day. And speaking of back in the day – this was before Scream and the glut of Kevin Williamson scripted teen horror that followed. I think this was also where I first saw Scream star Neve Campbell. I knew she was famous for a teen drama thing on TV which I never watched. Now Fairuza Balk was another story – I hadn’t seen her appear in anything since her role of Dorothy in return to Oz in the eighties – but more on her later.
The film starts off on a pretty pedestrian note. New kid in town (in this case Los Angeles) about to start a new school. This is Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney). She doesn’t know her way around, the other kids are kind of stand-offish toward her, as people tend to be. She’s anxious and finds it hard to connect with anyone.
Until she comes to the attention of a trio of close-knit misfits – Nancy, the obvious leader (Fairuza Balk) Rochelle (Rachel True) and Bonnie (Neve Campbell). They’re an obnoxious little gang, shunned by the rest of the school – but Bonnie notices that during a class, Sarah can balance a pencil on its end without touching it, and cause it to spin. The trio of misfits are a coven (maybe I should’ve led with that) and they think that the addition of Sarah, who is naturally gifted, can call the fourth corner and summon their god Mamon.
Reluctantly, because she’s finding it hard to make any other friends, Sarah agrees to join them – but will regret that decision. Each of the girls wants something, and this is a direct line into their character. Sarah wants the attention of a certain boy she likes and dated once but he rejected her shortly after. Rochelle wants revenge on a vain, mean minded and racist girl who torments her. Bonnie wants to be rid of a large area of burn scarring on her back, and to be beautiful. Nancy wants all the power of Mamon.
These gifts are granted, Bonnie’s scars fade and disappear, giving her the confidence to become vain. Rochelle’s bully loses her hair in clumps, and is reduced to wearing a wig, which virtually destroys her. Rachel’s boyfriend becomes hopelessly infatuated to the point of attempting to rape her. Nancy, however is revelling in her power, having escaped her trailer park trash roots.
Rachel’s experience shocks her into realising that they’ve gone too far – plus there’s the Wiccan rule that whatever you send out comes back on you threefold. When she wants to back out of the coven, the others turn on her and she realises they were never truly her friends – and this is where the horror starts.
I might as well come right out and say it, Fairuza Balk absolutely steals the show in this movie. From her opening scene, walking through a crowd with the other two girls trailing respectfully behind, she exudes a pure, manic, malevolent evil. When Sarah joins the coven, Nancy accepts her reluctantly, but as the film unfolds and Sarah’s level of power is gradually revealed, Nancy becomes silently consumed with an insane jealousy and rage. Whenever she’s on screen, your eyes are just drawn to Nancy’s character because subconsciously, you need to keep an eye on her because she’s that unpredictable.
Twenty three years later – I’m still convinced that Balk, a Wiccan in real life – should have had a glittering career in horror movies. She is clearly the female equivalent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and her role here should certainly have been more iconic than it was.
The battle of the witches is intense, and although I’ve always held up the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where in the Well of Souls, a constrictor comes oozing out of a skeleton’s mouth as a high watermark of repugnance, the hallucinations that Nancy inflicts on Sarah are almost as bad. There are rats (which are always cute, as far as I’m concerned) insects which I can take or leave, they really don’t bother me. Snakes don’t as a rule, but the sheer number of them in this scene… They are literally everywhere, but the yuk factor is amped when you see them piled up against a window, the squeaking noise as they’re pressed against the glass, moving against it. THAT, right there – is the stuff of nightmares.
Rachel proves herself to be the most powerful of them, Bonnie and Rochelle lose their powers, but the last shot of Nancy is a haunting one – as haunting as the last shot of Nicholson in The Shining, she’s strapped down on a hospital bed, ageing, crazy look in her eyes, convinced she can fly.
Wow – what a film. But a film that doesn’t sensationalise the Wiccan way, the production team took care to have a Wiccan advisor on set. Well worth a viewing, but be warned – as if I haven’t emphasised enough – Fairuza Balk will creep the hell out of you.
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