The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with? This installment looks at Teen Witch, a 1989 movie that’s since become part of the Halloween canon.
Teen Witch was a box-office bomb. Released opposite both Field Of Dreams and Pet Sematary in April 1989, the movie grossed just $3,875 its opening weekend and $27,843 the whole time it was in theaters. Maybe it was because the movie didn’t really have much star power behind it—Robyn Lively (sister of Gossip Girl’s Blake) had only made brief appearances on Silver Spoons and Punky Brewster and in the Goldie Hawn vehicle Wildcats before Witch started filming in late ’87. Or maybe it was because Teen Witch, originally conceived as a girl-centric version of Teen Wolf, just wasn’t very good. Either way, Teen Witch sank almost the second it hit theaters.
That doesn’t mean the movie hasn’t found its audience since. Boosted by frequent plays on HBO and basic cable, Teen Witch has become a cult classic in the 25 years since its release. The film’s ridiculous “Top That” rap-battle scene has become especially iconic, popping up in gifs and as an Internet-based rebuttal from time to time. And while much of Teen Witch’s modern popularity has come strictly because the movie’s not great, much of its “original” fandom—the kids who got into it in the early ’90s—really fell for the Witch’s charms. Viewers (myself included) thought the love plot between lowly 16-year-old witch Louise Miller and popular quarterback Brad Powell was absolutely dreamy, if not a bit questionable, consent-wise. And the concept that Louise—a girl who’d been skipped ahead a grade and spends much of the first half of the movie wearing giant, boxy coats, for crying out loud—becomes “the most popular girl,” well, that’s just a dream for anyone who’s young, quiet, and not-so-popular themselves.
But does Teen Witch hold up, 25 years later? I loved it growing up, but would I love it as an adult? Or would its charms have dissipated, much like the weak spells of a newly anointed witch?
In short, yes and no. The last 25 years haven’t been kind to Teen Witch, what with its spontaneous musical numbers, big hair, and neon tutus. As an adult, I’m now fully aware of just how weak and spotty the movie’s plot is, something I obviously didn’t care that much about as a pre-pubescent girl starved for the attention of someone, anyone named Brad. In the movie, Louise uses her newfound witchy powers first to perform little miracles—humiliating an asshole teacher, making her heinous and handsy fall-formal date just up and disappear (forever?)—before falling too deep into her potential. With the help of Zelda Rubenstein’s mysterious and diminutive Madame Serena, she harnesses the power of uber-pop star Shana, thus becoming the most popular girl in school—if not the world—and winning the heart (and loins) of the aforementioned hunky QB. Of course, she then realizes all this is a facade, and that just because she’s made Brad like her doesn’t mean that he actually like-likes her. As her dad (played by Dick Sargent, an actor who’s no stranger to witchy daughters) tells her, “You know, kitten. It doesn’t really matter how other people see you. It matters how you see yourself.” A dramatic and dramatically choreographed dance at the prom ensues, then Brad and Louise slowly entwine their fingers, thus ensuring that—thank goddess—he really is into her, not just into her magic.
There are some rather obvious problems here, though, 25 years later. First of all, Brad doesn’t appear to be all that cool a guy, basically ignoring Louise’s existence until he needs her help in English, wants to get fresh in a dirty abandoned house, and tells her “it’s only natural” they go to the dance together. And while that abandoned house makeout scene was hot when I was 10 or whatever, at 33, the fact that Louise walks on torn up carpet without her shoes on—let alone actually lets Brad graphically French her on said stained carpet—makes me want to curl up and die. (Seriously. Watch the clip. It’s gross. And as assistant editor Andrea Battleground pointed out to me, the shot is so close you can repeatedly see the veiny underside of Brad’s probing tongue.)
Secondly—and this is definitely nit-picking, but that’s partially the point of Memory Wipe—there are obvious consent issues in Louise and Brad’s relationship. Madame Serena repeatedly pushes Louise to turn Brad into her “love slave,” even using Louise’s magic to turn a frog into a hunky young paramour for herself. When Louise expresses her hesitance, Serena asks, “What does it matter?” And while that might have been charming in ’89, in 2014, it just seems kind of gross and predatory.
More than anything, the movie’s problems lie in its pacing and absurdity. It seems to take forever for Louise to actually get her powers. Then the plot just glances over how she really learns to use them. Suddenly it’s months later, Louise is the most popular girl of all time, and she’s become annoyed by the legions of Louise Maniacs hooting and chanting outside of her house. Louise got exactly what she wanted and now she regrets it, but we barely see the development of any of that story. Instead, we get quick glimpses of the demise of Louise’s friendship with Polly, her hat-wearing, wisecracking best friend, and of the school’s sudden switch from being Team Randa or Team Kiki or whoever held the crown before Louise’s ascension to power. And while the story doesn’t really suffer for it—we get it, tale as old as witchy-storytelling time, and so on—that stuff seems like the most fun part of the story. It’s absolutely the funniest part of the movie, in terms of visual storytelling. It’s like the film’s director, writers, or editors just went, “Well, gotta move this story along.”
Re-watching Teen Witch more than two decades after I last saw it, I realized I don’t actually completely hate it, even watching with a critical, feminist, 33-year-old eye. There are aspects of the movie that are terrible—the fashion, the rapping, the part where a “wild” character just lists off a bunch of slang terms for “penis”—but that terribleness makes the movie kind of endearing now. It’s a snapshot of a time and place, and while that place might never have really existed (unless there are incredibly powerful 16-year-old witches I don’t know about, anything’s possible), I can still watch Teen Witch and remember how I felt when I first watched it. I wanted that romance. I wanted that power. I wanted my school to be papered with spontaneous signs about how great I was. Years later, I might have the romance and some degree of the power (and the signs, if I make them myself), but it’s still nice to occasionally remember that feeling of wanting more, of not knowing yet that something like Teen Witch was patently stupid, if not absolutely impossible. As an adult, I’ve come to realize that, while there might be magic out there, if I want something big to happen to me—in life, in love, in whatever—I have to get it started myself. A fortuitous note won’t find its way into Jake Ryan’s hands à la Sixteen Candles and, while I love my husband, we didn’t get together because I cast a spell on him or because he lost himself in how poofy my hair was. Real life is about real stuff, and Teen Witch certainly isn’t. It is a fun escape, though, even now.