Skip to content

Plot: benevolent stranger is hired to help locate a woman’s estranged father

The trio of Bloodsport (1988), Cyborg (1989) and Kickboxer (1989) were more than enough to establish Belgian strongman Jean-Claude Van Damme, the “muscles from Brussels”, as the new international martial arts / action hopeful. Universal Soldier (1992) cemented Van Damme’s reputation in America, giving way to a cameo in the surprisingly intelligent Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie deconstruction / genre sendup Last Action Hero (1993). Before his widely derided vanity project Street Fighter (1994) failed there was Hard Target (1993), a cynical pastiche of western conventions under guise of a no-holds-barred action movie, set against the backdrop of a decaying New Orleans in the contemporary Deep South. Hard Target is so American that you can smell the swamps, the humidity and the cynicism.

Chosen to direct Hard Target was Hong Kong action and bullet ballet specialist John Woo, who had stunned the world with the highly-kenetic Chow Yun-Fat heroic bloodshed offerings A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), Bullet In the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992). Studio interference ensured that Woo’s visual trademarks were kept to an absolute minimum as to not affront Western cinematic sensibilities. In other words, the best way of introducing an exciting new action director to the world was by getting rid of the very things that made said director famous in the first place. John Woo’s trek through Hollywood continued with the John Travolta Die Hard (1989) knockoff Broken Arrow (1996), the science-fiction actioner Face/Off (1997) that pitted Travolta against then-indie-darling Nicholas Cage and the much publicized Tom Cruise starring and produced Mission: Impossible II (2000). Woo did in fact conquer Hollywood, be it through intermediaries as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and the Wachowskis – each of whoms prime endeavours were rife with Hong Kong action aesthetics.

John Woo’s English-language debut Hard Target is first and foremost a homage to classic westerns. After an opening montage that has the feel of a 90s update of The Most Dangerous Game (1932) tough-as-nails Marine Force Recon turned merchant sailor Chance Boudreaux (Jean Claude Van Damme) saves 20-something Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler) from a swarming gang of thugs in one of the rough, lawless areas of New Orleans - more or less the Detroit of the Bayou in the mid-90s - which is about as vintage western as you’re likely to get. Mousy, wide-eyed, husky-voiced Michigan native Natasha soon hires Boudreaux - a mid-90s mulleted, denim-clad, boot-wearing, redneck equivalent to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) – in locating her father Douglas (Chuck Pfarrer), a former Marine Recon that has become homeless in the two decades since Vietnam. Nefarious entrepreneur Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and his right-hand man Pik Van Cleef (Arnold Vosloo) have chosen the deep South as the latest target for their business venture that offers a very peculiar service: the possibiity for the incredibly wealthy to hunt the undesirable and the poor in the world’s most unhospitable regions. When Boudreaux’ homeless friend Elijah Roper (Willie C. Carpenter, as Willie Carpenter) is preyed upon things take a turn for the personal. With the help of detective Marie Mitchell (Kasi Lemmons) and his hermit, shotgun toting, moonshine brewing, hicks-from-the-sticks Uncle Douvee (Wilford Brimley) Chance at least has a fighting chance against Van Cleef and Fouchon.

There’s nothing to complain about Van Damme’s martial arts skills or the action choreography and Woo doesn’t have to rely on clever editing and trickery to make the fights any more hard-hitting than they already are. Typical of Western action the fights are clunky, slow and without much rhythm. This isn’t Hong Kong after all. Henriksen and Vosloo relish in the villainous glee as leader and henchman, respectively. Kasi Lemmons’ detective Marie Mitchell is too much of a one-note character to be anything beyond her designated archetype – and it’s telling that her and Willie C. Carpenter’s minority characters need to serve as sacrificial lambs before the Caucasian hero gets serious about stopping the threat of Henriksen’s Emil Fouchon. In fact it’s downright bizarre that in the entirety of New Orleans Lemmons’ and Carpenter’s characters are the only African-Americans in sight. Wilford Brimley lends an odd sense of credibility to what otherwise is an exercise in futility. Since this is Hollywood, and Hollywood needs its clichés; there’s the obligatory scene where the heroes outrun the fireball. At least there are the expected funny one-liners with “poor people get bored, too” serving as a coda.

Woo has the homages to classic westerns flying about fast and thick. Jean Claude Van Damme plays a drifter, a western character archetype. Like many drifters that Eastwood portrayed Boudreaux is a silent man of action. During the streetbrawl wherein Chance introduces himself to Natasha, Woo has Van Damme tuck his longcoat back as he and his assailants briefly exchange glances much in the way of a typical western duel. In their search for Natasha’s father they team up with a local detective, which is the closest Hard Target gets to the western convention of teaming up with the sheriff. “Ladies first,” says Van Damme’s Chance to Butler’s character in a scene scribbled almost verbatim from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Arnold Vosloo’s character is an obvious tribute to western regular Lee Van Cleef. There are corrupt businessmen and doctors abound, and law enforcement is conveniently absent due to a strike. The New Orleans of Hard Target is mysteriously deserted and probably has the lowest count of African-Americans, an unfortunate reminder that black people in westerns weren’t allowed in until 1960 and only became regular cast members in the 1970s. There’s plenty of horseback riding and stuff blows up with all the fireworks John Woo is known for for absolutely no logical reason at all. The score is full of electric guitar, banjo and ‘Born On the Bayou’ from Creedence Clear Water Revival has a prominent place in the soundtrack. Of course do Natasha and Chance ride off into the sunset at the conclusion as if all the other western allusions weren’t obvious enough already.

Hard Target is another take on The Most Dangerous Game (1932) that isn’t helped in the slightest by two leads with no apparent acting skill. Van Damme still hasn’t mastered Shakespeare’s language but at least the script offers a reasonably fun explanation for Boudreaux’ thick French accent. Butler - daughter of Joe Butler, the drummer of American rock band The Lovin’ Spoonful, famous for their 1966 hit ‘Summer in the City’ – was primarily a TV actress and, to be entirely frank, it shows. Her constant look of bepuzzlement is priceless as if Butler is wondering how she ever agreed to this screenplay. Henriksen is at his best when he plays villains and Hard Target allows him to show his range. The mid-nineties weren’t kind to Jean-Claude Van Damme with interchangeable actioners as Timecop (1992), Sudden Death (1995) and Maximum Risk (1996). There was never any question about Van Damme as a martial artist which his early titles Cyborg (1989), Kickboxer (1989) and Lionheart (1990) so aptly demonstrated. Universal Soldier (1992) required him to emote minimally but that movie was actually helped by Van Damme’s detached, robotic performance. Hard Target is certainly better than Replicant (2001) but that isn’t much in the way of a compliment. As far as Van Damme action romps go, there are far worse offenders than the routine Hard Target. John Woo did right in dressing this up as a thinly-veiled homage to his favorite westerns.

little-witches

Plot: Catholic schoolgirls dabble in witchcraft…

The Craft (1996) was a lot of things. It proved that Neve Campbell could do more than look misty-eyed as she did in Party Of Five (1994-2000). It was her other big movie of that year next to Wes Craven's self-reflexive Scream (1996). It confirmed that Fairuza Balk was destined for bigger and better things. It proved that Rachel True probably deserved a bigger career than she ended up getting and that Robin Tunney - who would all but bury her Hollywood career with the double-whammy of End Of Days (1999) and Vertical Limit (2000) - was better served on the small screen. Thankfully her career was resurrected by a guest role in the House, M.D. (2004) pilot and her role as Teresa Lisbon in The Mentalist (2008-2015). It also inspired several knock-offs including Little Witches and The Coven (2015).

Canadian-American production Little Witches was bankrolled to capitalize on the success of The Craft. It was shot in 18 days over a three-week period in Santa Barbara, California and it was released direct-to-video and in foreign markets a month after The Craft (1996) hit cineplexes. It features a bunch of fresh, young faces. Young actresses hungry enough that they didn't mind taking their clothes off. Among these a very young Clea DuVall, Jennifer Rubin and designated bad girl Sheeri Rappaport. The screenplay by Brian DiMuccio and Dino Vindeni is endemic of direct-to-video shlock in that it's so incoherent and bad that not even the frequently naked Rappaport can save it. Little Witches was written, directed, and acted so poorly that director Jane Simpson has since come out and disowned it. Lalaneya Hamilton, who has since understandably quit the acting profession and apparently found religion, denounced it by saying, “In my life... I would have to say that acting in Little Witches is one of the most regrettable things that I have ever done. I am very sorry that I took part in it. As a Christian I would not recommend this movie.

Simpson started out in animation, moved into commercials, and later music videos. She had directed one movie prior to Little Witches, and has returned to her work in commercials, and music video since. Prior to Little Witches writing duo Brian DiMuccio, and Dino Vindeni had penned the screenplay to The Demolitionist (1995), a flagrant, and low-rent RoboCop (1987) plagiate that sold itself with the tagline, “Hell hath no fury, like a woman transformed!” and had none other than Baywatch star Nicole Eggert in the lead role. Producer Donald P. Borchers was responsible for a swath of exploitation cult favorites including The Beastmaster (1982), Children Of the Corn (1984), Tuff Turf (1985, the screen debut for Cat Sassoon) and the Drew Barrymore thriller Doppelganger (1993). Special effects and makeup men Gabriel Bartalos, Clayton Martinez, and John C. Hartigan have since worked on a multitude of big-budget Hollywood productions. Most of the teen cast, or at least those that weren't either Clea DuVall or Sheeri Rappaport, didn't do much of interest after. Most of them quit acting altogether.

Little Witches opens in a Santa Carlita Academy classroom in California where Sister Sherilyn (Jennifer Rubin) teaches English class. Asked whether they can identify a Latin phrase, resident brunette Jamie (Sheeri Rappaport) blithely remarks that she, “doesn’t speak dead language!” In her stead a nearby blonde blurts, “It’s Virgil from the Aeneid”, in response Jamie offers the non-witty repartee, “kiss-ass nerd!” “Knowledge is power!”, the still unnamed blonde quips, “but ignorance is bliss” retorts Jamie. “Is this your idea of a ten-page paper on Plato?” asks Sister Sherilyn “If you assign us cooler stuff, I might get more inspired”, when asked what “cooler stuff” entails Jamie replies with, “Macbeth”. Her grievances duly noted the class receive an assigment for a ten-page paper on Macbeth. Shakespeare’s Macbeth also had witches – but the exchange is of no importance to, and will have no bearing on, the plot. Rising from her chair Jamie, now visibly inspired or agitated, gabbles “Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through fog and filthy air.” Cue a jump-scare. Well, no. In fact Little Witches opens with a prologue set 100 years in the past involving an orgy of naked girls around a smoke-filled cauldron. The orgy comes to a halt when men of the cloth barge in, and kill the heretics. After the carnage, a mostly-unclad woman imparts, “I am the Lord’s guardian. The Horned Demon cannot come as long as I’m alive!” This will become of some importance later, and expose a glaring plothole.

Along with five others Jamie is sent to confessional with Father Michael (Jack Nance). Just like in The Craft the students wear plaid skirts, knee-high socks and half-open shirts. At their weekly confession it is learned that Jamie is the queen bee of the school’s resident misfits clan. Next to Gina (Lalaneya Hamilton), the prerequisite sassy black girl, there's also the token chubby student. “Do you have any sins of a non-dietary nature to confess to?” inquires Father Michael after Erica (Melissa Taub) catalogs that week’s list of culinary transgressions. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” says the still-unnamed blonde as she settles in the booth. After a few sobby lines about parental abandonment and the passing of her father, the nearly comatose Father Michael notes that, “Faith, you must begin to realize that you’re a part of God’s plan!” Oh, great. So Little Witches not only rips off the decidedly secular and better The Craft, but it pushes a Christian agenda to boot. How lovely...

Eight minutes in and we finally learn this character’s name! Since this is a movie called Little Witches and the blonde is called Faith it's safe to wager a guess that this will be our main character for the remainder of the feature. Things aren't exactly looking up as Mimi Reichmeister (later Mimi Rose) is a cut-rate Piper Perabo or Meredith Monroe and thus barely a decent television actress. If this was a sixties over seventies movie the blonde could've been Danielle Ouimet and we'd all be a lot better off. Alas, she is not just Faith, but Faith Ferguson cos alliteration is fun and Little Witches tries very hard to be educational whenever Sheeri Rappaport isn't deviously traipsing around the screen, often with very little clothes on. Not that we'd mind. Little Witches would've been a whole lot better if it focused on Rappaport's character instead of Reichmeister's. Rappaport can actually act too. Faith, as we just learned, is apparently having a crisis of faith. Cos she's Faith.


On that note Jamie steps into the booth with whorish aplomb and chirps, “Father, I’ve been a bad girl” before she unbuttons her shirt, spills out her left breast, lifts her skirt (a skirt longer than those that Gloria Guida wore in the 70s) and proceeds to writhe suggestively into the boot. “Jamie, you’re going to have to find another way of dealing with your family problems without these performances of yours. Continuing disrespect will only lead you into darkness!” Father Michael, now looking as if he’s recovering from a hangover, sternly advises. Barely two scenes in and Little Witches has revealed exactly what it is. A turgid and immensely belabored romp with a heavy-handed moralizing screenplay that is neither scary nor sexy enough to pass the muster by any reasonable metric you're willing to employ. The only good thing is that shortly we'll be introduced to Clea DuVall and her character.

In fact the group is slightly bigger than in The Craft but the make-up is entirely the same, including the token minority character: Faith is - as her name not-so-subtlely suggests - the wholesome, studious Christian girl and thus the Robin Tunney character. Jamie is not the brooding goth reject that Fairuza Balk was in The Craft. instead she has the look of a 90s Aerosmith music video girl. Lalaneya Hamilton stands in for Rachel True and DuVall's Kelsey is the closest to Neve Campbell's character. Daniel (Tommy Stork) - Faith’s designated love interest and this movie’s Skeet Ulrich - takes his shirt off several times, much to the delight of female audience members, to expose his washboard abs. To its credit at least Little Witches has a little bit for everyone. The depiction of witchcraft is, as expected of these kind of productions, goofy and cartoony. At least the Calling of the 4 Quarters is portrayed somewhat accurately. There are plenty of skyclad incantations recited from dusty, leatherbound Latin tomes around smoke-filled cauldrons in mouldy caves, should Little Witches not be enough of a hint for the especially dense.

Since Little Witches revolves around “sexy witches” it is at least consistent in its nudity, which is both gratuitous and demure. Every member of the group gets completely naked, even the rounder girl partakes in as much frontal nudity and sacrilege as her more traditional looking peers. Suprisingly, no spell is cast to make her thinner and more conventionally attractive. Probably because that cost money and that was one thing that Little Witches didn't have. A first act running gag involves Erica being at the receiving end of several food-related jokes and insults. In a similar vein does Angie, the token minority character, have less nude scenes than the Caucasian cast. Despite the Catholic school girl and witches angle, there are no sapphic allusions or suggestions, there’s not even implied lesbianism in the convent. The girls’ disrobing is used as a metaphor for gaining power and control, whether it is over nearby construction workers, or channelling power in an arcane ritual. There’s a distinct sexual undercurrent as at least one of the Little Witches is “penetrated” (death-by-impalement) by the very demon they desired to summon.

While Mimi Reichmeister is tolerable enough, she's clearly no Clea DuVall. DuVall clearly should've been the main character here, but Reichmeister was blonde. What it does prove is that DuVall was a burdgeoning talent. However, it is Sheeri Rappaport that Little Witches gets the most mileage out of. In a scene directly scribbled from The Craft a character asks about Jamie’s promiscuity and mischief. Faith answers with, “what didn’t she do?” - a slight variation on what Robin Tunney’s character said in The Craft. After a racy skylight striptease set to ‘Who’s Going to Make it Rain?’ by Mr. Jones and the Previous, Faith asks, "what if somebody saw you?" "That was kind of the point," Jamie dryly remarks. The only character arc worthy of the name is Faith’s meet-cute and gradual infatuation with Daniel and his washboard abs. To sabotage Faith’s date with Daniel one of the girls moves the clock back to 7:25 (when it was at 7:50), in the next shot it’s back at 7:50. Apparently there are no wrist watches in this universe. Jamie - not content to only corrupt seraphic men of the cloth and summon antediluvian demons - just fresh out of the shower, seduces hunky Daniel and his washboard abs by pushing him on Faith’s bed and dropping her towel. Daniel - an able-bodied, athletic construction worker and architect-in-training - is somehow unable to repel the bare-naked schoolgirl. Instead of resolving said conflict, Daniel becomes the subject of human sacrifice in the final ritual. Cos this movie is called Little Witches and human sacrifices is exactly the kind of thing witches would do to summon their infernal lord, right?

In lieu of having to replicate several of The Craft’s effects scenes Little Witches has three wicca scenes, of which only one involves practical - and creature effects. The first - and second act concern themselves with the girls involving themselves with witchcraft and preparing to invoke He-Who-Comes, or Lucifer. Coming to the conclusion that none of them understands Latin, Faith walks in. “Gee, what a coincidence. I can read Latin”, she shares. When He-Who-Comes materializes into the corporeal realm the scaly monster suit looks worse than that in The Loreleys Grasp (1974). He-Who-Comes must be stopped before Good Friday, before the supreme evil can be unleashed. Jamie acts as his designated licentious concubine. The eleventh hour manifestation of telekinetic powers in Jamie is simply shrugged off by the script as unimportant. The conclusion has Faith, who has since regained her faith in the Christian god, and Sister Sherilyn screaming “You are NOT the Devil’s mistress!” at Jamie in unison, and Kelsey experiences a different kind of penetration than the one she always imagined. "Lucifer himself is stealing your souls. Look in the mirror, you see what I say is true", Sister Sherilyn yells. Two of the girls are killed, a dessicated corpse is unearthed from the temple ruins, two/three members of the clergy die violent, unnatural deaths – yet none of it is important enough to warrant an investigation. "So who knows, maybe some other good little girls really did call the devil up from Hell. That's my confession, Father", we hear Faith say at the end.

Of all the criticisms that can be leveled at Little Witches its most egregious shortcoming is that it doesn’t go quite as far as you’d imagine. Aside from the blatant thievery, its heavy-handed Christian propaganda rherotic, and skewed view on wicca – there’s little, not to say nothing, that is even remotely transgressive about Little Witches. The nudity - frequently gratuitous and risqué compared to the average Hollywood production - is prudish and thus very much a product of its time. Lucifer is mentioned in name only once and even the Illuminati, who are all hot teens girls and act as protectors of the Church, make their not exactly hotly anticipated appearance during the anticlimactic, nearly incoherent conclusion. It all goes to show just how conservative and lamentably lame Little Witches actually is. It’s a miracle that DuVall and Rappaport were able to walk away from this cinematic abortion and maintain/build a career. If there’s anything redeemable about Little Witches, it's Sheeri Rappaport getting naked so much that you'd get the mistaken impression that this a 90s occult take on a Gloria Guida commedia sexy all'Italiana.