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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.

Plot: a school girl and her friends disturb the spirits of the dead

Verónica is last year's surprise horror hit from Spain and touted as Netflix's 'scariest movie ever' in mainstream press and social media alike, deserved or not. Released domestically as La Posesión de Verónica, but abbreviated to Verónica for international release, it was released on Netflix on February 26 with little to no promotion to speak of. No other movie in recent memory was received to such widespread response – and the general hysteria surrounding Verónica will remind the more cynical among us of two movies from the mid-to-late 90s called The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Ringu (1998) that got similar reception. Verónica was nominated for 7 awards during the 2018 Goyas and screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Not bad for an rather uneventful little genre exercise that would’ve certainly languished in obscurity otherwise. Thankfully it is partially redeemed itself by introducing a young new talent by the name of Sandra Escacena to the world.

Spain has a long and rich history in horror and terror cinema that dates all the way back to the mid-to-late sixties. Directors as Paul Naschy, Jesús Franco, Amando de Ossorio, Enrique López Eguiluz, Javier Aguirre, Miguel Iglesias, and León Klimovsky reigned supreme during the exuberant seventies and remained active when interest in the genre waned in the eighties. As in the prior decades Spanish horror once again underwent a transformation and greeted the nineties in a new form. Spanish horror always took after its American inspirations but it wasn’t until the nineties that Spanish directors were really able to match their American peers. Álex de la Iglesia shot the genre back to relevance with his second directorial feature as did Alejandro Amenábar with his debut thriller Tesis (1996) a year later. Amenábar briefly flirted with Hollywood with the supernatural thriller The Others (2001) but returned to his native Spain after his Abre los Ojos (1997) was remade by Tom Cruise as Vanilla Sky (2001). Following soon in the footsteps of de la Iglesia and Amenábar were directors/screenwriters like one Jaume Balagueró.

The director of Verónica is Paco Plaza - a protégé of that other darling of Spanish horror cinema, Jaume Balagueró – with whom he co-directed [Rec] (2007) and its sequels. Balagueró was in no small part responsible for the resurgence of Spanish horror in the barren decade that was the nineties. While it was Álex de la Iglesia and his The Day Of the Beast (1995) that truly heralded a new age for Spanish terror, Balagueró made a name for himself with the supernatural thrillers The Nameless (1999) and Darkness (2002). That Plaza would eventually venture out on his own was expected – and Verónica is exactly the kind of horror feature he was destined to write/direct. Plaza knows his horror and Verónica borrows liberally from all the obvious sources. It’s well-made and probably better written than it has any reason to be, even if it tends to be on the anemic side in terms of actual horror and shocks.

Verónica (Sandra Escacena) is a 15-year-old adolescent left to care for her younger siblings, Lucía (Bruna González), Irene (Claudia Placer) and Antoñito (Iván Chavero) as her mother Ana (Ana Torrent) works late shifts in the local bar-restaurante to make ends meet. During a lesson about the upcoming solar eclipse Verónica and her friends Rosa (Ángela Fabián) and Diana (Carla Campra) decide to hold a séance. As the rest of the school is watching the eclipse outside the three girls convene at the basement to conduct their séance. Diana wants to contact the spirit of her boyfriend who died in a motorcycle accident and Verónica wants to communicate with her late father. The glass on the Ouija board immediately responds to the girls’ touch becoming too hot to touch while Verónica remains impervious to the heat. As the eclipse is complete the glass shatters leading Verónica to spill blood on the Ouija board which tears itself in half. The next moment the girls find Verónica lying unresponsive, until she suddenly lets out a scream and passes out as the lights start to flicker. When she opens her eyes she’s in the nurse’s office who shrugs off Verónica’s condition as a mere iron deficiency. At home paranormal occurences start to happen around her: claw and bite marks appear on her body, strange noises emit from empty rooms, objects move by themselves and Verónica starts to experience hallucinations, and the ghost of her late father starts appearing to her.

In school Rosa and Diana start avoiding her and in the basement Verónica runs into the ghoulish Hermana Muerte (Consuelo Trujillo) in whom she confides in about the séance she conducted. Hermana Muerte scolds Verónica for dabbling with something she can’t possibly begin to understand. The woman of God has had her own brush with the supernatural and advises the girl to close whatever gate she opened and to protect her siblings from whichever horror she unwillingly summoned. In the following days the hauntings continue as Verónica fights tooth and nail in warding off whatever malign entity she summoned from the shadows. She learned from Hermana Muerte that it is important to say properly goodbye to whatever she summoned and, in her darkest hour, Verónica and her sisters try to appease the spirits by performing a ritual. The situation at home deteriorates to such a degree that the kids’ mother Ana even rushes back to the house, and after an emergency call the police show up. Detective Samuel Romero (Chema Adeva) is assigned the case and when he reaches the Gomez homestead he finds a picture of Verónica, soon becoming too hot to touch, and the girl herself expired from what appears to be mortal fright. The case, of course, leaves the police puzzled.

Doe-eyed Sandra Escacena is the biggest surprise in Verónica. With talent to spare she embodies the titular character with every fibre of her being. Escacena has the same disarming innocuous demeanor as Tina Sáinz in 1971 and that sizzling Mediterranean sense of sensuality that legendary Spanish cult actress Soledad Miranda (or, more recently, Paz Vega) had. Escacena might very well become the next Spanish superstar if her performance here is anything to go by. Hopefully she'll be able to choose the right roles and projects in the wake of Verónica's overnight success. The sparse few scenes she shares with Ana Torrent, the star of Alejandro Amenábar’s chilling Tesis (1996) 20 years before and the prerequisite veteran of the cast, are among the strongest moments Verónica has to offer. The other child actors acquit themselves admirably considering there isn’t much meat to any of their parts and they exist largely to amplify Escacena’s role. Ángela Fabián and Carla Campra fill out their supporting parts as Verónica’s school buddies well enough but that’s the extent of their importance. Here’s hoping that Sandra Escacena turns into the next Cristina Galbó, Penélope Cruz or Ivana Baquera.

What would Spanish horror be without its sturdy reliance on Judeo-Christian symbolism and iconography? Nothing and Verónica is no different in that respect. Verónica is a Catholic schoolgirl and the nuns that run the school conform to the usual clichés. There are a multitude of crucifixes (brandished either by the nuns or by Verónica) and at one point a halo is projected onto Verónica. Hermana Muerte is probably the single best character next to Verónica herself and the ominous warnings she utters make the tension tangible. Hermana Muerte is as ghoulish, sickly and ashen as the apparitions and shadows that haunt Verónica and her siblings. Hermana Muerte’s cynical remarks help drive the point home that secularism will be punished. Dabbling in the occult for selfish reasons will get you killed. Of course Verónica is a completely different kind of possession movie than the Spanish productions that flooded the market in the wake of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973). Verónica draws from a whole different set of influences but it preys on the same Judeo-Christian fears and superstitions like its ancient predecessors in decades past. Verónica is clearly for the Hong Kong ghost crowds.

One of the greatest strengths of Verónica is that it aims to be more than just a horror movie. It uses the trappings and conventions of the demon possession and haunted house subgenres to tell a completely separate and more dramatic tale. Underneath Verónica is about a current-day dysfunctional family unit wherein a hard-working mother and her children mourn the loss of their father and come together through hardship. It’s a coming-of-age story wherein Verónica’s first period coincides with the height of the hauntings and where demonic possession is a thinly-veiled metaphor for puberty. Verónica liberally borrows from Poltergeist (1982), The Craft (1996), Ringu (1998), The Eye (2002), Dark Water (2002) and Paranormal Activity (2007) among others. The framing device that bookends the main portion of the story merely exist to tie it to a story torn straight from the headlines. The basis for the screenplay was the ‘Vallecas case’ where teen Estefania Gutierrez Lazari died a ‘sudden and suspicious death’ in the Gregorio Maranon Hospital in August 1991, two months after allegedly having had a brush with the supernatural. The result of having a séance with friends interrupted by a woman of the cloth who broke the ouija board during the summoning. It’s the oldest marketing trick in the book, but one that admittedly still works. Verónica has atmosphere in spades, but its scares come across as telegraphed and obvious to anybody with a passing familiarity with the horror genre. That doesn’t make it any less effective – and like a seasoned pro Sandra Escacena owns every scene she’s in.

It stands to reason that Verónica is the single most talked about Spanish horror movie as of right now. Its cultural importance is as significant as Álex de la Iglesia and his The Day Of the Beast (1995). Whether or not its reputation as Netflix's 'scariest movie ever' is deserved is another matter entirely. Verónica is an effective but hardly riveting example of the form. As a genre piece it pushes all the right buttons and it certainly is atmospheric enough considering its low-key locales, but that alone is hardly worth more than a passing viewing. For novice viewers there’s a good chance that Verónica indeed will be the most scariest thing they’ve ever laid eyes upon. More experienced viewers will find a beautifully lensed and well-written little genre exercise to sink their teeth into. Verónica is only a horror movie if that’s all you expect it to be. It works by the genre’s conventions but at heart it’s actually a heartwrenching drama. Therein lies the strength of Paco Plaza’s directorial debut feature. Like the ghosts it portrays Verónica becomes what you want it to be.