Skip to content

In an illustrious career spanning three decades and as much distinct phases Piedmont, Italy-based pagan dark metal maestros Opera IX have experienced some of the highest peaks and grimmest lows. In their prime they were masters in combining occult death/black metal with ethnic Italian folk music like no other. “The Call of the Wood” laid the basic groundwork but it wasn’t until “Sacro Culto” that they truly embodied the sweltering Latin Meditterranean darkness and eroticism from the cult cinema of yore from which they partly derived inspiration. Their years with frontwoman Cadaveria were probably their most memorable and they have struggled to live up to their massive legacy with her (as has Cadaveria herself, ironically). “The Gospel” is the first Opera IX record in well over a decade that is in any way mandatory. Is it a return to the golden age of “Sacro Culto”? Not necessarily. There’s no contesting that “The Gospel” is the strongest and most complete Opera IX experience in many a moon.

After three albums (“Maleventum”, “Anphisbena” and “Strix - Maledictae in Aeternum” when they were fronted by Madras and the late Marco De Rosa) and a decade in the margin Ossian and his Opera IX scored what for all intents and purposes must be their greatest victory in years with the recruiting of Serena Mastracco (who appears as Dipsas Dianaria) of the now-defunct Riti Occulti - a psychedelic doom metal band whose very existence they in no small part helped inspire - as frontwoman. Former singer Abigail Dianaria now fronts Swiss death metal combo Amthrÿa and is on her own road to success, artistic and otherwise. “The Gospel” holds the middleground between the ritualistic occult waltzing of “Sacro Culto” and the more symfo-oriented and standardized “The Black Opera”. The +10-minute epics of yore have gradually been subsiding in the last decade or so and the longest track on “The Gospel” is just over 7 minutes long. “The Gospel” does return to the alternating witching vocal styles of the Cadaveria era. “Back to Sepulcro” already hinted at such return but “The Gospel” fully capitalizes on it. While the ethnic percussion, acoustic guitars and folkloristic chanting are likely never to return that doesn’t make “The Gospel” any less of a return-to-form.

If Abigail Dianaria brought Opera IX back from the brink of irrelevance then her successor Serena Mastracco heralds an era of grand restoration and artistic rejuvenation. Mastracco is probably the best thing to ever happen to this band and her vocals are probably the closest Opera IX is likely to come to the classic Cadaveria era. The shadow of madame Cadaveria has long loomed over Ossian and his rotating cast of musicians and now, some 18 years after her acrimonious departure, the band has finally obtained a younger version of their most identifiable frontwoman. The vital contributions from Abigail Dianaria are not unimportant or in any way diminished by the hiring of Mastracco. She definitely reaps the benefits of what Abigail did before her. Not only is Ossian playing some of his best riffs since the dawn of the millennium but Alessandro Muscio (keyboards) and Massimo Altomare (drums) deliver some impressive work within their respective departments. Altomare is probably the best drummer this band has had since Alberto Gaggiotti and Muscio is worthy successor to Lunaris from the classic line-up. “The Gospel” is probably the strongest Opera IX offering since the golden days of “Sacro Culto” and “The Call of the Wood”.

“The Gospel” concerns the goddess Aradia, the daughter of Roman goddess Diana and the sun god Lucifer, an important figure in Italian folklore and a key figure in Gardnerian Wicca (and its various offshoots), South European Stregheria, and contemporary neopaganism. Aradia was the subject of a fifteen-chapter treatise by American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland and his Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches that was publicized in 1899. Leland’s text is widely considered to be a composite of an English translation of an earlier original Italian manuscript called the Vangelo (gospel). The Gospel of the Witches was what Leland believed to be a religious text of a sect of witches in Italy that documented their beliefs and rituals and his own research on Italian folklore and witchcraft. The majority of the manuscript is believed to have come from one Maddalena or Margherita from Florence, a fortune-teller and alleged witch from an Etruscan lineage, who claimed to be well versed in the traditions, spells and doctrines of the Old Religion providing him with hundreds of pages of material. Leland used The Gospel as evidence for witch lore in 19th century Italy although various scholars and historians have since questioned and disputed both the accuracy and the legitimacy of the text. Raven Grimassi on the other hand claimed Aradia was Aradia di Toscano, who led the Cult of Herodias, or a band of "Diana-worshipping witches", in 14th-century Tuscany. Even within Wicca, Stregheria, and contemporary neopaganist circles the veracity of The Gospel remains a controversial subject even to this day.

Stylistically “The Gospel” is an apparent fusion between the waltzy atmospheric Meditterranean darkness and romanticism of “Sacro Culto” and the more symfo-inclined “The Black Opera”. The record is uniformly strong and there’s truly no weaker track to speak of. An early highlight is ‘Chapter III’ and a track as ‘The Moon Goddess’ is more reminiscent of “The Black Opera” than it is of any of the band’s earlier era. ‘House of the Wind’ even reuses a very familiar melody/riff heard earlier in ‘Congressus Cum Daemone’ from “The Black Opera”. Closing track ‘Sacrilego’ uses the third movement, widely known as the marche funèbre, of Frédéric Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2. Interestingly, relative newish cuts ‘Consacration’ and ‘The Cross’ from “Back to Sepulcro” weren’t given a make-over. Understandable since “The Gospel” is nearly an hour long and an additional 9 minutes of bonus content would be overkill, even by opulent Opera IX standards. In short there’s a wealth of material to be found on “The Gospel” making it well worth the years that it took to finally materialize. Serena Mastracco has brought a sense of rejuvenation and even a mild form of artistic resurrection to Opera IX. Even an impressive three decades into their existence Ossian and his cohorts manage to stay relevant in a completely different musical landscape.

Don’t call it a comeback because Opera IX never was truly gone. It’s true that they spent more than a decade in the margin when the wave of millennial symfo black metal crested and they found themselves a mere second-tier. “Back to Sepulcro” already hinted that Opera IX was brewing on something. That something has become “The Gospel” and while our relationship with them is iffy at best, this is some of their best work in years. That a thirty year old band can still conjure something this powerful from the altars of whatever deities they worship is impressive, to say the least. It’s as if the sacred fire from “Sacro Culto” has been rekindled and Serena Mastracco possesses the same serpentine quality as Cadaveria, even though Mastracco’s delivery is not quite as theatrical nor as dramatic. Opera IX is at its strongest whenever they’re fronted by a woman as that is, after all, how they initially made a name for themselves. They might no longer engage in the “occult experiments” that used to be their calling card, but if “The Gospel” is the sound of their future – then count us among the faithful…

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.