Wild Women With Steak Knives: LITTLE WITCHES (Jane Simpson, 1996)

The Craft of imitation.

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · January 28, 2022, 4:20 PM PST
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It's hard to describe how big a splash Andrew Fleming's The Craft made upon its time of release in mid-1996. Even if it's only through the oft-shared Fairuza Balk "We are the weirdos, Mister" gif or Zoe Lister-Jones's 2020 sequel The Craft: Legacy, that the original has a long tail isn't really up for debate; people loved The Craft then, and they love The Craft now, for good reason. This sassy tale about a group of Catholic schoolgirls teaming up to form a coven captured the hearts and minds of horror fans and mainstream audiences alike, inspiring a now decades-long body of admirers.

Filmmakers at the time were savvy enough to know a good thing when they saw it, and Jane Simpson's Little Witches, which came out at the end of 1996, is a relatively undisguised, low-budget imitator. At the time, critics largely cringed at the audacity with which it was clearly riffing off its far more successful source of inspiration, and beyond that, the film has otherwise fallen off the radar. And yes, it would be disingenuous at best to try and argue that The Craft didn't cast a (very) long shadow over Little Witches. But that being said, Simpson's film, regardless does offer numerous delights that have otherwise largely gone unacknowledged.

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Like The Craft, Little Witches is, er, a sassy tale about a group of Catholic schoolgirls teaming up to form a coven. The location here is the Santa Clarita Academy, and while the bulk of the school's student body returns to their families for Holy Week, a small cluster of students remain on the boarding school campus. Bored and flung into close proximity with each other, when an earthquake reveals a mummified corpse and a strange, hidden chapel buried underneath the school's church, vampy Jamie (Sheeri Rappaport) employs the assistance of nerdlinger virgin Faith (Mimi Rose) to help her open a portal to hell and unleash demonic bad vibes because, well, she's bored. Whatever. But maybe there's more to it than that; Little Witches doesn't dwell on it, but for all of Jamie's eye-rolling 'over it’-ness, she is, at her core, driven by a lot more than her surface adolescent disillusionment. Jamie wants power, she wants autonomy, and, as she repeats numerous times throughout the film, she wants to find a way so no one can ever tell her what to do again. And, if we listen carefully, we discover why that is so important to her.

Director Jane Simpson came to Little Witches from a background making music videos (heads up: she directed Chaka Khan's "I Feel For You" video in 1984!), and has a clear affection for what were then described as MTV aesthetics with a flair for all the stylistic whistles and bells associated with the form. This is perhaps a nice way to view Little Witches; while it's not so much a music video film per se, it also doesn't hold back on gimmicks and effects, which while undeniably a little tacky, seem to be consciously so; Simpson really embraces it. Little Witches is not the best film you will see, but it has its charms if, like me, you find a peculiarly satisfying deliciousness in low-budget horror.

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Make no mistake, Little Witches is trashy - absolutely - but there is a kind of sweet naivety to the trashiness that can be really appealing if your taste lies that way. Take, for instance, the opening scene which is a flashback to a ritual where floral-garland-wearing pagan girls attempt a human sacrifice but are stopped by a mysterious, monk-like guardian. Riddled with styrofoam props, flames, dry ice, latex monsters, and oh so many boobs (an even number, mind, as they usually travel in pairs), Little Witches is hardly a sophisticated foray into the genre, but from the very outset, it makes no pretense to be doing so.

Little Witches is silly, it's fun, and yes, while the echoes of The Craft here are inescapable, the film's casting alone makes it worth a watch. To start with, it's our friend Clea DuVall's feature film debut, an actor with strong ties to horror who would soon go on to The Faculty (1998), The Grudge (2004), and TV series such as American Horror Story, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, and The Handmaid's Tale. It also includes a genuinely charming performance by Jennifer Rubin of A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors fame (Taryn forever!), and Sheeri Rappaport's performance as troubled vixen Jamie is without question one of the film's strongest foundations.

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Most of all, however, it is two performers at the other end of their careers who stand out in this film most of all and alone make it worth the price of entry. Long-time David Lynch collaborator Jack Nance is super-sweet as the school's harmless priest, less Eraserhead than Twin Peaks's Pete Martell (he even goes fishing here as a perhaps not-so-subtle reference to this particular character). And although only a small part, like all the films she appeared in, horror icon Zelda Rubinstein is fabulous as the mysterious Sister Clodagh, a hermit nun. She knows many of the Santa Clarita Academy's darkest secrets, and Faith befriends as she unravels the mysteries that lie buried beneath the school's church. Little Witches probably won't change your life, but it may bring a silly little horror sunbeam into it. And let's face it, whom amongst us doesn't need a little more sunbeams, smoke machines, and latex demons in their life right now?