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

It’s hard to describe the extent of Andrew Fleming’s splash The job made at the time of its release in mid-1996. Even if only through the oft-shared Fairuza Balk gif “We’re the weirdos, sir” or Zoe Lister-Jones’ 2020 sequel The profession: heritage, that the original has a long tail is not really up for debate; people liked The job so, and they love The job now, for good reason. This sassy story about a group of Catholic schoolgirls teaming up to form a coven has captured the hearts and minds of horror fans and the general public, inspiring a band of admirers for decades.

Filmmakers at the time were savvy enough to know a good thing when they saw it, and Jane Simpson Little Witches, released in late 1996, is a relatively low-key, low-budget imitator. At the time, critics largely cringed at the boldness with which it clearly used its far more successful source of inspiration, and beyond that, the film otherwise fell off the radar. And yes, it would be dishonest at best to try to assert that The job did not cast a (very) long shadow over Little Witches. But that being said, Simpson’s movie still offers plenty of delights that otherwise go largely unrecognized.

Like The job, Little Witches is, uh, a sassy story about a group of Catholic schoolgirls teaming up to form a coven. The location here is Santa Clarita Academy, and while most of the school’s student body returns to their families for Holy Week, a small group of students remain on the boarding school campus. Bored and thrown close to each other, when an earthquake reveals a mummified corpse and a strange hidden chapel buried beneath the school church, vampire Jamie (Sheeri Rappaport) employs the help of the nerdlinger virgin Faith (Mimi Rose) to help her open a portal to hell and release bad demon vibes because, well, she’s bored. No matter. But maybe there’s more to it; Little Witches doesn’t dwell on it, but despite all of Jamie’s eyes, she’s, deep down, driven by much more than her superficial teenage disillusionment. Jamie wants power, she wants autonomy, and as she repeatedly says 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 this is so important to her.

Director Jane Simpson came Little Witches from a background making music videos (beware: she directed Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” video in 1984!), and has an obvious affection for what was then described as the MTV aesthetic with a flair for all the stylistic whistles and bells associated with the form. That might be a nice way to see Little Witches; while it’s not so much a music video per se, it also doesn’t hold back on the gimmicks and effects, which, while undeniably a tad tacky, seem consciously so; Simpson really kisses her. Little Witches isn’t the best movie you’ll see, but it has its charms if, like me, you find a particularly satisfying delight in low-budget horror.

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Don’t make a mistake, Little Witches is trashy – absolutely – but there’s a kind of sweet naivety about trashiness that can be really appealing if your taste is that way. Take, for example, the opening scene which is a flashback to a ritual where pagan girls wearing garlands of flowers attempt a human sacrifice but are stopped by a mysterious monk-like guardian. Riddled with polystyrene props, flames, dry ice, latex monsters and so many breasts (an even number, beware, as they usually travel in pairs), Little Witches is hardly a sophisticated foray into the genre, but right off the bat it doesn’t claim to do so.

Little Witches it’s silly, it’s fun, and yes, while the echoes of The job here are unmissable, the cast of the film alone is worth the detour. To begin with, it’s the first feature film by our friend Clea DuVall, an actor very attached to horror who was soon to become Faculty (1998), The Grudge (2004) and TV series such as american horror story, The Lizzie Borden Chroniclesand The Handmaid’s Tale. It also includes a truly charming performance by Jennifer Rubin of A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors fame (Taryn forever!), and Sheeri Rappaport’s performance as the troubled vixen Jamie is undoubtedly one of the film’s strongest foundations.

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But it is above all two performers at the other end of their career who stand out the most in this film and who alone are worth the price of admission. Longtime David Lynch collaborator Jack Nance is super nice as the school’s harmless priest, less eraser head than Twin Peaks Pete Martell (he even goes fishing here as a maybe not-so-subtle reference to this particular character). And although only a small role, like all the movies she’s appeared in, horror icon Zelda Rubinstein is fabulous as the mysterious Sister Clodagh, a hermit nun. She knows many of Santa Clarita Academy’s darkest secrets, and Faith befriends her as she unravels the mysteries buried beneath the school’s church. Little Witches probably won’t change your life, but it can bring a little ray of silly horror to it. And let’s face it, who among us doesn’t need a little more sunshine, smoke machines and latex demons in our lives right now?

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