Warts & Crafts: Little Witches (1996)

Wrapped in evocative artwork, Jane Simpson’s sophomore feature promises more than it delivers. Dave talks to co-scripter Brian DiMuccio and producer Donald P. Borchers to find out what went wrong.

“Jane wasn’t there to shoot just another T&A flick,” wrote LITTLE WITCHES (1996) star Sheeri Rappaport in Femme Fatales. “She was there to make a film with passion, drive, and a head full of research, which she was ready to invest in the story content. However, if it’s their money, they have final cut. I couldn’t really elaborate on any conflict between the producer and director. I don’t want to slam anyone.” [1]

With Andrew Fleming’s teen witch drama, The Craft (1996), poised for success at the box office, veteran B-peddler Donald P. Borchers quickly delivered a rejigged ‘producer’s cut’ of his thematically similar Little Witches in order to ride its spellcasting coattails. For Little Witches‘ director, Jane Simpson, though, her dismay towards Borchers was thinly disguised:

“On one hand it’s better to be honest in pre-production than have someone take your film away and throw in gratuitous nudity,” said the seasoned commercials and music video helmer. “I’d rather get the orders, shoot it, and make sure it’s done tastefully rather than have somebody hint at what they want.” [1]

According to Borchers, the overlap between The Craft and Little Witches was more by coincidence than design, at least initially. Because when Little Witches wrapped on 25th March 1996 – four weeks before Fairuza Balk and co. stormed U.S. cinemas – gossip in the trade press suggested that, with only a few exploitative tweaks, the Children of the Corn (1984) and Crimes of Passion (1984) impresario could have a big home video hit on his hands.

“The producer’s cut was the only cut,” Borchers told me recently. “The original editor [Kristina Trirogoff] and I parted ways during principal photography. On the job training was my leverage to pay wages low enough to make low-budget movies. So I trained an apprentice editor for a month after we shot which resulted in my cut.”

A director disowning their film.

An editor fired in the middle of a shoot.

And a producer abandoning a project’s original vision to cash in.

Not the ideal ingredients behind a good movie – and yet somehow, for all its flaws, Little Witches remains a fascinating piece of work.

“No one had heard of The Craft when we started Little Witches, so it was frustrating to be labeled a rip-off,” sighs the film’s co-scripter, Brian DiMuccio. “To us they were a high budget rip-off of us. Oddly, a couple of years later I ended up with a friend at Fairuza Balk’s birthday party in Venice and I told her I wrote Little Witches. She said she’d seen it and we had a laugh. Ten minutes later I was asked to leave (sad trombone).” 

The nucleus of DiMuccio and writing partner Dino Vindeni’s script is plain to see. In it, six impressionable Catholic schoolgirls are left to their own devices during the Easter break after their plans to head home fall through. The discovery of an old satanic temple underneath the campus church spells trouble – especially when the rebellious Jamie (Sheeri Rappaport) learns that virginal newbie, Faith (Mimi Rose), might well be the conduit to summoning the evil that lurks below…

Borchers’ tinkering is the stuff of legend – or, indeed, IMDb trivia – but DiMuccio believes that things weren’t particularly rosy between him and Simpson:

“Of all the directors Dino and I worked with, our relationship with Jane on Little Witches was the worst. To be fair, we were two young cocky Italian-American dudes who thought we had all the answers and wore an atrocious amount of cologne, and I think we rubbed her the wrong way. We were sharing a house at the time and invited Jane over for dinner to discuss the script. It was pleasant enough and we all seemed to be on the same page about the direction we wanted to go in but then after she left, we discovered she had dropped a deuce in our bathroom and not flushed. Had we known what was to come we would have taken this for what it surely was: a dark, odoriferous shot across our bow.”

“She was soon bad-mouthing our script at every opportunity and later, when we showed up on set, it became clear she’d told the cast that DiMuccio and Vindeni were just her pen names. She pretty much tried to wipe us out of existence. At the time it really stung. So my involvement with that production was far less involved than on other projects. Basically, it came down to a couple of days on location at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, which was serving as our Catholic High School, where I remember having drinks in the makeup trailer with a hilarious Zelda Rubinstein, trying very unsuccessfully to flirt with Jennifer Rubin, and partying with Sheeri Rappaport and the other little witches.”

Credit where it’s due: without the smoldering presence of the aforementioned Rappaport, you could happily confine Little Witches to the scrapheap of obscurity. She’s electric here. The young performer owns every scene, easily outshining her anonymous circle of friends, bringing a darkness, a danger, and a much-needed dose of peril to its frequently flavorless moments.

To a lesser extent in terms of impact, it’s nevertheless a pleasure to see Jack Nance – albeit in his final screen performance. Completing a full house by featuring in each of DiMuccio and Vindeni’s first three screenplays (The Demolitionist (1995), Voodoo (1995) and this), it’s a brief role, and it’s one in which he inexplicably plays Pete Martell. Plaid shirt, crumpled hat, and an obsession for fishing, he harbors every characteristic of his iconic Twin Peaks character except the name. It’s a surreal touch, yet it’s one that goes some way to explaining the reluctant appeal of Little Witches.

For Simpson, Little Witches is certainly not a write-off. Some sequences are beautifully shot and laced with atmosphere, and she benefits in part from some artistic set design. However, as alluded to previously, many of the flaws are attributable to the speed at which the film evolved.

DiMuccio agrees:

“From the results, I would have to say it was rushed. Some of the blocking that moved the little coven of five teens around the frame is awkward. It was decided before the start of shooting that the fifth witch [Lalaneya Hamilton] couldn’t have any speaking lines due to costs and so we reassigned her lines to the other four. I begged them to let me put in a line about her being mute or having had a tonsillectomy or something to justify why all she does is follow the others around wordlessly for the entire movie, but it never happened. To this day when I watch the movie I tend to focus entirely on the silent witch because that poor actress, despite having her lines ripped away at the last second, acts her ass off the whole time.”

“Also, the demon who appears at the end of the film could have used a few more days work at the EFX shop. We knew we weren’t going to get Tim Curry in Legend (1985) at that budget, but I wasn’t expecting something that looked like a papier-mache mask from Mardi Gras kiddie parade. Ed Wood wept!”

[1] Directing Little Witches by Sheeri Rappaport, Femmes Fatales, Vol. 5, No. 12, June 1997.

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