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Black looks cool, but witchcraft doesn't, at least not after you see 'The Craft'

A COVEN of teen-age witches lives in our neighborhood, and they are scaring my son, who has said rude things about their style of dress and is now afraid that he will wake up one morning inside the frog tank next to his bed.

You can tell they are witches, he says, because they wear black and are aloof. And, he reports, they have threatened him and his friends with spells that will turn them into the kind of reptilian life with which they already have so much in common. I half-heartedly calm him by saying that such a transformation would not require magic.

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Anyway, these smoldering beauties and their bold refusal to don the uniform of their kind -- flowered T-shirts and cutoff jeans in bright colors -- have caught my attention. I am in favor of anything that gives teen-age girls the courage to separate from the herd. They are perhaps the most disenfranchised group in the country, and if they feel empowered by black eyeliner and fishnet stockings, it is OK with me.

I wanted to learn more about the role of the black arts in the self-esteem and fashion sense of young women, so I went to see "The Craft," a movie about four outcast high-school girls who use witchcraft to take revenge on sex-crazed boys, abusive parents and racist classmates.

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To help me bridge the age gap, I took along my niece, Elizabeth, who also wants to be a witch because her brother's black suede vest is so cool and he would have to let her wear it if only she knew the right incantations to say while sitting around a candle with her friends.

Witchcraft is the ideal extracurricular activity for girls, who already love clothes, makeup, clubs, secrets and jewelry. Girls have a terrific instinct for accessories, and it is nearly impossible to conjure the forces of nature into a deadly maelstrom unless you are wearing thrift-shop funeral rags and plenty of Celtic crosses in faux silver.

Boys would not be good witches, because they would never be able to keep track of all the witchcraft props, and they would not be any more patient with the lengthy chants than they are with essay questions on tests. Boys would want to just mutter some bathroom talk over a jeweled-handled dagger and be done with it. And they would never take the time to read all those books in old English, even for extra credit.

Anyway, "The Craft," a cross between "Clueless" and "Carrie," tells the story of Sarah (Robin Tunney), the beautiful but mysteriously sad new girl in, yes, a Catholic high school in, yes, California, the land of suspended disbelief.

We quickly learn that Sarah, whose mother died at her birth, has the dark power because she can make a pencil turn by itself on its point and speaks better French than anyone else in her class.

She is recruited by three not-very-beautiful and incredibly bitter outsiders to be the "fourth" for something that is not cards or doubles tennis, if you know what I mean.

The trio of bad girls, who wear too much makeup and sass the nuns, initiate Sarah into their coven, although the wholesome Sarah resists their pressure to wear black lipstick, fingerless gloves and leather on hot days.

Together, they summon the powers of Manon, whom Nancy (Fairuza Balk) describes this way: "If God and Satan were playing football, Manon would be the stadium." Another way to describe Manon is to say that if God and Satan were playing football, Nancy, Bonnie (-Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True) would be smoking cigarettes behind the stands. If these girls are any example, then witchcraft appears to require tobacco and a great deal of unsupervised time after school.

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I know now that if my daughter starts wearing a studded dog collar and black nail polish, it is time for me to learn more about her friends.

At first, witchcraft gives the girls self-confidence and a sense of belonging. You can tell this is true because they walk together to school in slow motion with their chins held high and their breasts bouncing unself-consciously to the rock music score.

But then Nancy, whose increasing power is illustrated by an unruly hairstyle and a predatory sexual appetite, abuses her dark skills, and Sarah must find the courage to defeat her.

"The Craft" was not the feminist lesson I had hoped for: The girls wind up powerless, but better friends, except for Nancy, who ends up in plain and ill-fitting pajamas.

The conclusion a lot of wannabe witches will reach is that power isn't worth having because it inevitably corrupts. They might also conclude that it is dangerous to vent your anger against injustice because that anger will return to harm you threefold.

"I changed my mind about being a witch," my niece Elizabeth said as we left the movie theater.

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"I think I will be a pediatrician instead."

"An excellent alternative," I said, draping my arm on her shoulder. "But you know you'll have to wear all that white. And it is so hard to keep clean."

Pub Date: 5/26/96


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