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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.

With the likes of Ice Age, Lady Beast and Savage Master there’s no shortage of quality traditional metal. St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada heavy/power metal revivalists Category VI already left a favourable impression in 2013 with their charming and unassuming little debut “Fireborn”. Since the last record the band has acquired the services of a new drummer and inked a recording contract with German imprint Killer Metal Records. In other words, Category VI is ready to bring its music to a wider public. “War Is Hell” is very much cut of the same cloth as “Fireborn” but is more muscular, rugged and possesses a greater focus and combativeness. Ideal for a record dealing with the horrors of war.

The primary appeal of Category VI lies in its blue-collar charm and down-to-earth approach to their craft. They live and breathe the music they produce. On “War Is Hell” the Category VI core remains unchanged with Geoff Waye’s burly riffs and fiery soloing, Keith Jackman’s lively bass guitar licks, and Amanda Marie Gosse’s soaring vocals. Evinced by her choice of melodies Gosse is an ardent disciple of the late Dio. Befitting of the war thematic “War Is Hell” is still traditionally inclined, but far more muscular and combative all around compared to the more conservative “Fireborn”. The midpace is occassionally broken for a mildly faster section, but unlike Lady Beast “War Is Hell” is more about atmosphere and feeling than it is about speed. Not that Category VI would describe itself as a speed metal band in the first place. Would it benefit Category VI to let loose and put the pedal to the metal? Probably, but they are obviously comfortable in their midpace. Some changes in pace would lend it a considerably greater sense of dynamics and scope.

‘Strike Of the Axe’ opens the gates after a bit of guitar psychedelia and it’s rather evident that guitar solos have been given a more prominent place. Moreso than on “Fireborn” at any rate. The riffs are more muscular without becoming thrashy and drummer John Angelopoulos is given more to do than simply keeping time. ‘Full Metal Jacket’ has a pumping groove and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ is one of the band’s fiercest tracks to date, even with all the psychedelic guitar noodling that it engages in. Interestingly, 'The Traveller / The Dark Warrior' and ‘Crossing the Avalon’ are two songs from "Dark Warrior", the 2002 independently released and distributed demo from Waye's erstwhile band Oberon, here given a due re-recording. ‘Arise’ isn’t a Sepultura cover instead its a pulsating cut reminiscent of something off Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast”. With Waye’s guitar pyrotechnics and Jackman’s clanging bass just waiting to break out it’s puzzling that Category VI insists on a midpace as often as it does. These three men obviously have the chops to write and play something more demanding and adventurous. Evidently it isn’t frontwoman Amanda Marie Gosse that is holding them back from doing just that. What an amazing set of pipes this redheaded lady has. Not only is she powerful, expressive and commanding, her falsetto and higher register is equally full of emotion and girth. Category VI has obviously experienced a considerable growth spurt since its debut. Are they living up to the potential that “Fireborn” hinted at? Well, not entirely. The band has yet to pen its own ‘Rime Of the Ancient Mariner’ and they still tend to second-guess themselves every step of the way. Up the Irons already, guys!

Category VI is all about efficiency. At 47 minutes “War Is Hell” is about 5 minutes shorter than the debut. Their unpretentiousness is translated in the matter-of-fact production work and accompanying visuals. It’s functional, it’s earnest and oozes with the kind of heft and body that a lot of today’s overly sterilized productions lack. Amanda Marie and her men obviously have their heart in the right place and the disarming honesty of their music is ultimately works in their advantage. In a world where everybody’s a crook, and in an increasingly disingenuous scene, they are a welcome breath of fresh air. Arguably the metal scene needs more people just like them, but in all likelihood they will probably remain criminally overlooked just because they do things on their own terms. Admittedly the visual aspect remains on the amateurish side for a band now on a professional label. Imagine what Category VI conjure forth with a canvas from Jan Meininghaus, Péter Sallai, Samwise Didier, Thomas Ewerhard, or Jan Yrlund? In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor qualm considering how well-developed Category VI’s music is for a band of their age.

“War Is Hell” has Category VI on the verge of greater things; of finally unlocking their innate potential as a band, of Gosse elevating herself from a mere frontwoman to an underground icon, and their blooming songwriting finally matching their ambitions. “War Is Hell” is that kind of record. One where a band's entire future hinges upon. The Great White North has given the underground its fair share of now-classic bands in a variety of metal genres. Whether or not Category VI becomes the next institution depends on how they handle this record. There are plenty of bands with not half their promise that remain inexplicably popular with the masses. It’s high time for Category VI to claim their rightful place in the Canadian – as well as the international scene. If “War Is Hell” is any indication they are on the threshold. Together with Pennsylvania stalwarts Lady Beast (fronted by the indomitable Debbie Levine), Category VI is the best traditional metal is likely to get.