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In ‘The Craft: Legacy,’ the Coven Isn’t the Only Source of Magic

Steeped in generational lore and executed with empowering feminist aims, Zoe Lister-Jones’s film offers a reflection of sleepovers past and a glimpse into a tantalizing realm

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Zoe Lister-Jones felt incredibly seen, and it was a whole lot to take in. Before production began last fall on The Craft: Legacy—a Blumhouse Productions update on the 1996 tale of teen witches The Craft—Lister-Jones, the new project’s 38-year-old writer and director, invited some of the film’s young cast over for dinner. Impeccable guests, they arrived bearing gifts: crystals with mystical powers, sets of tarot cards, and expertise on how to interpret them.

Several of the actors had dabbled in the spiritual realm since even before they became involved with this project. (Not a prerequisite or anything, though it certainly didn’t hurt.) Actress Gideon Adlon, 23, gave Lister-Jones a tarot reading that was “bone-chilling” in its clairvoyance, Lister-Jones tells me in a recent phone call. “I was going through some things in my life personally at that time and I will say, Gideon really just, like, was razor-sharp,” she says, still sounding amazed, and a little bit shook, a year later. A young actor pulling cards for their director is probably not the typical start to a Hollywood film, but it was exactly the sort of spooky camaraderie that Lister-Jones had hoped to establish in building her new look at an old classic. And what’s more, this sort of sistren is in her blood.

Growing up, Lister-Jones used to gaze at a photo on the wall of her home. Her mother, the video artist Ardele Lister, had co-founded a women’s film collective in the ’70s called “ReelFeelings,” and the photo “was like, 10 women, all in wedding dresses, sitting on a beach,” Lister-Jones says. “And that was their calling card as a film collective. I’m so grateful that I grew up with that image sort of seared in my mind, and that it still permeates me, like, on a cellular level.” Through the years, there has been plenty of evidence that this is indeed the case.

In grade school, when Lister-Jones was given an assignment to come up with a business idea, she settled on “Big Women Construction,” which is pretty much exactly how it sounds. (Her bizdev included calling up a lumberyard to ask questions, and creating a solid tagline: “No job is too big for Big Women.” There were business cards.) In 2017, when she made her solo-directorial debut with the Sundance film Band-Aid, which she also starred in and wrote, Lister-Jones put together a production that was, behind the camera, staffed entirely with women. (Adam Pally, her costar in Band-Aid, remarked to The L.A. Times that after working in that environment, “all men sound like animated germs in flu commercials to me.”)

And with The Craft: Legacy—which was originally intended for theaters but amid the pandemic ultimately premiered last week for $20 on demand—she sought to take the 1996 film’s vivid portrayal of women and explore the bonds between them even further. The new version is technically a continuation of the original, with both cinematic and canonic references to its predecessor. But it also feels original all on its own, more like a reimagining than a sequel. The movie is steeped in generational lore, executed with empowering feminist aims, and populated by actresses who “were forming a coven in real life as well as on screen,” Lister-Jones says. It’s also a little bit like how I envision that ReelFeelings beach photo on the wall looking and feeling: like a tantalizing snapshot into a deeper, richer world, one that for a viewer lies just beyond reach.

When The Craft was being developed prior to its premiere in 1996, “it fit in no category,” producer Doug Wick remembered in a Huffington Post oral history about the film. “The whole idea of a girl-centric teenage movie that was dark, there weren’t really a lot of antecedents for that,” added writer and director Andrew Fleming. (One of the few points of comparison at the time, he said, was the dark comedy Heathers.) The mid-to-late 1990s saw an entertainment boomlet revolving around the supernatural and the spooky and the scary, in various forms, and The Craft was at the early part of that wave.

Between 1992, when the film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered, and 1999, when The Blair Witch Project hit theaters, all of the following projects came out, in roughly chronological order: The X-Files; The Craft; Sabrina the Teenage Witch; Scream; the even more influential TV version of Buffy; Scream 2; Charmed; Practical Magic; etc. The Craft cost $15 million to make, featured early roles by classic ’90s actors ranging from Skeet Ulrich to Neve Campbell to Breckin Meyer, and received mostly middling reviews, like one blurb that called it both “a brew of Hawthorne, Heathers, and Hollywood hocus-pocus” and also a “bubbling mess of a movie.”

But it clearly filled a void, making a modest $55.6 million but also establishing an outsized stature as a classic and ubiquitous film of its era. “It was definitely, like, a part of pop culture,” actress Michelle Monaghan, who was in college when the original came out and now plays the main character’s mother, Eunice, in The Craft: Legacy, recalls in a phone call.

As someone who was on the cusp of turning 13 when The Craft came out, I watched it again and again, usually during sleepovers in my friend Julia’s basement, enthralled by the wounded, drag-racing danger of Fairuza Balk’s character Nancy and the warped possibilities inherent in the movie’s premise. What would I change about myself if I had access to magic? What would I change about my enemies, or better yet, my frenemies? How badly might I screw it all up? (If there was any lesson The Craft instilled, it was the one about karma in triplicate.)

Decades later, as an adult, these questions are as intriguing as ever, but at the time, contemplating them was practically a lifeline for my overactive teenage mind. The original was so embedded in the popular consciousness in this way that when Monaghan received Lister-Jones’s script, she says, she wondered how it would establish its own voice. “I thought, well, you know, what could she do differently?” she says. “How could she reimagine it? And I think I knew within the first 10 pages that I was going to do the role.”

For a number of reasons, Lister-Jones didn’t bring any notes when she pitched her take on reanimating The Craft to nu-horror king Jason Blum two years ago. First of all, she had already spent so much time organizing her thoughts and ideas that she was more than familiar with every last one of them. “I’m a Virgo,” she says, so “I am incredibly meticulous when it comes to details.” As a professional actress, with performances ranging from her breakout in the micro-indie Breaking Upwards to her recurring roles in network sitcoms like Life in Pieces, Lister-Jones also felt “more comfortable telling the story as though I’m performing it,” she says, “so I memorized the whole thing.”

The performance was made simpler by how much of it was steeped in reminiscence. “I was telling a story that was fairly personal to me,” Lister-Jones says. “I drew a lot from my own experiences as a young woman. And so I really anchored the film in this mother-daughter relationship, from an emotional standpoint.” Lister-Jones has remarked in interviews leading up to the premiere that she related to some of The Craft’s aesthetic at the time, having shaved her head in seventh grade, and I ask if such a move even registered as rebellion to her feminist artist mother. “She took me to get it done,” she says.

As an adolescent, Lister-Jones hadn’t been into horror movies the way some of her best friends were. The Craft was a rare exception: “It was about these young badass women, taking vengeance on all the assholes themselves,” she says. “And I suddenly was like, OK, yeah. This is what horror can be like.” Two decades later, as she began putting together her pitch, she rewatched the movie to see what elements she wanted to nod to and what she wanted to make all her own. “But then I never watched it again,” she says. “I really wanted to be unencumbered by it seeping into the story.”

In The Craft: Legacy, the core story from the original film is repeated: Three unpopular high school witches are thrilled to discover that there’s a new girl in school who might have the chops to be their powerful fourth guardian of the watchtower, and spirited antics, hookups, and tragedies ensue. But Lister-Jones’s film deviates from the original in a number of ways. The 1996 movie hinged on a number of iconic horrorcore moments—maggots slowly rising from a toilet bowl like creepy-crawly Jiffy Pop; fingers turning into snakes; blood—in a way the 2020 version does not. Instead, there is a newly viscerally unsettling plot line involving a men’s rights activist (and author of a book called “The Hallowed Masculine”) named Adam, played with suave, stern command by David Duchovny.

“The thing about girls with power,” Adam drones coldly, sounding like a powerful amalgam of so many just-sayin’ internet comments, “is they’re always too weak not to use it against each other.” He might as well have been delivering a synopsis of the original film: Two of its most memorable characters, Balk’s teeth-baring, harm-doing Nancy, and Christine Taylor’s slur-throwing, bathing-suit-clad Laura, were the ones who entered into direct conflicts with other women. There is no meaningful counterpart to either in the newer installment, which is more interested, in keeping with broader industry movements when it comes to films featuring and aimed at Gen Z, in having its girls-with-power wield it with collaborative, rather than retributive, zest—to be progressive in their transgressions.

“I always love when women are allowed to be villains, in all of its deliciousness,” Lister-Jones told Harper’s Bazaar, “but I did really feel that the message that I wanted to explore was much more that no power is too great for women to embody, and that power should drive us to live in community rather than turn on each other.”

She brought this same type of intention to all aspects of her production. “She’s one of the people who really empowers everybody on the set,” Monaghan says, “whether it’s the actors or anybody from the crew.” To make sure that the set was a safe environment for transgender actress Zoey Luna, Lister-Jones worked with a representative from GLAAD as well as an outside consultant. When 23-year-old actress Cailee Spaeny filmed a solo scene in which she fantasizes about a boy she’s cast a love spell on, Lister-Jones brought in an intimacy coordinator to ensure that everyone felt comfortable on set.

She was also focused on handling the underlying subject matter—witchcraft—with respect and care for the traditions and beliefs of its practitioners around the world. While the original filmmakers in the ’90s consulted with a “high priestess of Gardnerian Wicca” at the time, Lister-Jones sought input from three different women with wide-ranging backgrounds in the occult, gathering information on everything from bruja culture to altar-setting on the Craft: Legacy set. In this, as in everything, Lister-Jones was a total Virgo.

After telling me about her mom taking her to get her head shaved in seventh grade, Lister-Jones adds a little more context that gives the story several new dimensions. Originally, she says, she wanted to dye her hair pink, but her mother wouldn’t let her.

“I don’t even know if she remembers saying this,” Lister-Jones says, “but she said, ‘I think it’s going to bring you a lot of attention from older men. Like, it’s gonna make you look older than you are.’ And it was such an interesting moment for me because I was like, ‘What? What does that mean?’ Like, I still didn’t understand that I was entering into ‘prey’ territory. And so I think when I said, ‘Yeah, I want to shave my head,’ she’s like: ‘Well, that helps.’” Lister-Jones laughs at the concept. “I think that’s gonna work better.”

Lister-Jones has a keen eye for detail and character and nuance, for unraveling the layers of the onion like this, for feeling these little pressure points at the intersections of beauty and power and expression. Which is why I find myself wishing The Craft: Legacy could have been a TV show or a miniseries—even though I sense that’s a cop-out of a take, kind of the critical version of being asked about a weakness in a job interview and admitting that sometimes you pay too much attention to detail. And yet, really and truly, I’m certain that all the things I enjoyed most about 99-minute The Craft: Legacy (as well as most of the things I didn’t!) would thrive if given more, and wormier, soil to root around in.

The vibrant characters and the magnetic young actors who inhabit them felt fairly bursting with potential backstory. I longed to meet the character Lourdes’s abuela; to watch a whole episode (working title: Male Gaze) through the POV of one of Adam’s repressed sons; to listen in on the neighborhood gossip about Monaghan’s gorgeous, sunny, Alanis-belting single mother. In general, stories about flawed humans with magical powers are a lot like stories about flawed humans with medical and legal careers: they are best told in a serial format in which everyone involved can cast story arcs like spells, both sprawling and tight.

And who knows, perhaps there is more out there if the stars align. (The movie’s end certainly has tons of to-be-continued potential, and Lister-Jones told The Boo Crew podcast that she “sort of wrote this film with a third in mind.”) Monaghan wasn’t at the dinner party Lister-Jones held back before production began, the one where the director was gifted with crystals and had her tarot read, but she had her own similar experience during filming when Luna gave Monaghan a personalized astrological reading that blew her mind. “She calls herself Astro-Bitch,” Monaghan says. She marvels that many of her costars’ devotion to this stuff is such that they carry crystals “like, on their person” on the regular. She says that she and Duchovny used to talk about how it was impossible to find the right word—energetic isn’t enough, neither is electric—to describe the young coven’s spirit.

“I mean, these chicks are just totally clued in,” she says, and as I’m busy imagining her and Duchovny having this conversation at the end of a work day, she suddenly hits on the right word. “They’re cosmic,” she says. “They’re totally cosmic.” Which is fitting, because this is a cinematic universe that still has plenty of room to expand, to mess around with gravity and leave people levitating. I’ll be making a wish that it does, though maybe I need to procure a crystal first.