Teenagers from hell

Dark deeds done because, like, you know, nobody understands me, OK? `The Craft' is a teen movie from heaven

There have been a lot of duff films made about teenagers. We're so used to the likes of Rumblefish and Footloose that it's a shock when they get it right. In Michael Lehmann's 1989 classic, Heathers, the latest craze at school is teen suicide. Like any other high school trend, it belongs to the rich and beautiful. When a dumpy girl attempts to take her own life, she is scoffed at. Heathers works so beautifully because it starts from the premise that its target audience is smart enough to understand the concept of satire. Similarly, Clueless was a huge hit because it is a reworking of an author (Jane Austen) who never once told a lie about human relationships.

The best teen flick since Clueless is The Craft, in which four unpopular high school girls become witches. The good girl, Robin Tunney, comes on like a junior Agent Scully, all cynicism and ginger hair. But it is the evil Fairuza Balk who, like Winona Ryder of Heathers, is going to have a serious career.

Balk is a cross between Christopher Walken and Norma Desmond, always descending Gothic staircases, nail varnish chipped and eyes shining with gleeful nuttiness. Her character, Nancy, uses her powers to kill her mother's abusive boyfriend and to cause the school's bitchy blonde to have premature hair loss. Like the subtly subversive Addams Family Values, The Craft sees growing up as a battle between the smart, brooding dark kids - the blacks, the Jews, the working class - and the cheery blondes. The miserable, the morbid and the Morrissey fans will inherit the earth.

The tabloid press always seems surprised when a child commits a crime. The Craft acknowledges that the young, especially teenage girls, are capable of nastiness unimaginable to most adults. Warned by a friendly bus driver to "watch out for those weirdos", Nancy hisses: "We are the weirdos, Mister." It is a beautiful moment. Tunney, on the other hand, is weak: the only spells she casts are love potions to win the geeky school jock. You get the impression that she is the one who really abuses her powers. Sure, Nancy unleashes the wrath of God and Satan, but at least she doesn't pander to a boy. The girl thinks big.

The Craft has all the components of a great teen film - the obvious star- in-waiting in Fairuza, the requisite lousy make-over, in which they take the prettiest character and put lip-gloss on her (Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club; here it's poor Neve Campbell). The look to copy is Catholic schoolgirl meets Goth - all tartan miniskirts, knee-high socks and black kohl. It also has a hip sound-track (Elastica, Portishead, and a heavy metal version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows").

The Craft is the bastard child of Carrie and the Brat Packers. After the Loners (Clift, Brando and Dean) and before Friends (bouffant with blonde highlights and her chums with black bob, buzz cut, floppy fringe and centre parting) were the Brat Pack. Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Matt Dillon, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore and Molly Ringwald were an amalgamation of teen rebels, jocks, princesses and psychos wandering in and out of a collection of mid-Eighties John Hughes movies. Their roles were as defined as the Village People's and their acting was just as good.

Brat Pack films were the football pitch where proto-Rachel from Friends and sub-James Dean went to play each other off. For two hours the loner and the spoilt princess would eye each other with distaste, before kissing each other's faces off in the last reel.

Apart from The Craft, The Breakfast Club is the perfect teen movie of all time. Ringwald, Nelson, Estevez, Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall play five students with nothing in common who are forced to spend a whole Saturday's detention together. Adults do not intrude, except in the form of one corrupt teacher who gets his comeuppance. The film struck a chord because it depicts young people trying to come to terms with each other, rather than with their parents or the establishment. Hey, we're self-centred, but vulnerable. The gap within the generation is generally more interesting than any perceived generation gap.

Ringwald also starred in the seminal Pretty in Pink, as a poor girl going out with a rich guy (Andrew McCarthy). I always found it fascinating because the American idea of "poor" is so twisted: we know Molly is on the poverty line because she drives a Chevrolet instead of a Porsche, and because she wears pink scarves. Ringwald's career never took off because, she claims, she is still seen as a teenager. The same fate befell Michael J Fox when he tried to cross over from the Back to the Future trilogy to the cocaine saga Bright Lights, Big City.

Two alumni are attempting to resurrect their careers via sitcom: Molly Ringwald in the Friends rip-off Townies, and Judd Nelson in the Brooke Shields vehicle Suddenly Susan. Ringwald plays a blue-collar waitress and Nelson a newspaper editor. It's very confusing for someone who's seen The Breakfast Club 27 times. "No," you find yourself yelling at the screen, "some mistake. Molly is the princess and Judd is the rebel, and that's how things have always been."

Ally Sheedy is not allowed to have a career because she sounds like one of the Arabian Knights. Fairuza Balk, like Winona Ryder, of Beetlejuice and Heathers, is not going to have any of these transitional problems because she never played a "young person" as such. At least, not Hollywood's idea of one.

Fear, out next week, fails on every level at which The Craft succeeds. It is supposed to be a teenage Fatal Attraction, a kind of My First Stalker Movie. It stars Reese Witherspoon and ex-rapper Marky Mark, who I decline to call Mark Wahlberg because I don't think he's earnt it: speaking very quietly does not make you a great actor. Our heroine has a winning combination of prissy face and lockjaw. Marky Mark looks like a muscular pixie. The first half is in the tradition of Liz and Monty in A Place in the Sun, except violent and awful, with unattractive stars. This is not a teen film, but a Teenie movie, for kids who exist purely in the heads of 50- year-old executives. It is as laboured and off the mark as Teenie TV like The Girlie Show and The Word.

The point is, you don't need to cast a teenage boy as a psycho, because teenagers are awful enough as it is; that's what makes them interesting, as The Breakfast Club, Heathers and The Craft prove. By the end of Fear, Mark has killed the best friend, murdered the pet dog, tied up the family and made the object of his affection watch.

Summing up her dislike of Fear, one young girl scoffed, "He did all that and she's not even pretty." Make a Teenie movie and be judged on Teenie termsn

`The Craft' goes on general release tomorrow

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