I have a confession to make before I share my thoughts on this film, which unfortunately aren’t very positive. I’m not in this movie’s target demographic. (In fact, I’m not in the target demographic of most Hollywood movies, usually understood to be the 25-and-under crowd.) For the sake of modesty, let’s just say that I’m old enough to have seen the original Star Wars in the theater, but young enough to have needed my mom to drive me there. And so I realize that the middle-aged (ahem) fuddy-duddy in me is probably skewing my opinion of Screen Gems’ watered-down, teen witchcraft flick The Covenant toward the negative, but given the movie’s tepid box-office performance last fall, it’s obviously not just my rapidly-maturing age group that found it less than appealing.
Beginning with lots of introductory text that delivers 75% of the film’s plot (always a bad sign), the opening credits feature a montage combining woodcut imagery of witches with rave party footage (intriguing contrast), presented over a pretty basic remix of White Zombie’s “More Human Than Human,” a song I thought was pretty bitchin’ back in 1995, which should tell you how misguided the filmmakers were in thinking that it would appeal to moviegoers fifteen years younger than me. The story follows a quartet of hunky prep school guys in the small town of Ipswich (Montreal doubling for Massachusetts), all inheritors of a legacy of magic passed down to them from their 17th-century warlock ancestors. Sworn to keep their powers secret – the titular pact – the four, called the “Sons of Ipswich,” are also reluctant to use their abilities because each spell cast gradually ages them (the worst possible evil in a film this concerned with physical beauty). But with the start of the school year and the arrival of several new students, dark, supernatural events begin to occur on campus, including several murders. Is the person responsible one of the group’s own members, surreptitiously using his own powers to gain an advantage over the others, or could it be the long-rumored inheritor of a fifth family, one betrayed and ostracized by the others in the 1600s, returned to seek vengeance against the members of the Covenant?
A note to filmmakers who work on movies about witchcraft or Satanism: that scary-looking “Goth” font, the one with the cross in place of the T, isn’t edgy any more. In fact, it’s downright lame and here, it’s the first clue that those responsible for The Covenant are completely out of touch with their intended audience. Director Renny Harlin (mid-forties) and schlock scriptwriter J.S. Cardone (early sixties) conjure the kind of teenaged lives found only in bad Hollywood screenplays written by rich, middle-aged men. All the kids – admittedly from the town’s wealthiest families, but still – drive the latest BMWs and Hummers and the Academy itself resembles a slightly under-lit New England spa retreat. Although we get one or two token scenes of them in class, one wonders how they manage enough time to study, since all the guys in the film are so buff and broodingly good-looking, they must spend nearly every waking moment either working out or attending to their manscaping.
And while I don’t think any of Cardone’s previous efforts displayed the tendency, The Covenant is the most homoerotic “young adult” horror film outside of something produced by David DeCoteau, although the indie auteur’s films are usually more Z-grade fun. For instance, the main character (actor Steven Strait – no pun – eerily channeling Billy Zane throughout his performance) says to his new maybe-girlfriend that he’s “not sure just yet” why “you’re the only girl I’ve ever taken up there,” to his family’s old mansion. And the “freestyle” swimming race scene has to be seen to be believed. But the rest of the movie is curiously chaste, no doubt a concession to the PG-13 rating. These kids are bad (they have to be appealing to their intended audience, after all), but not bad enough to engage in any truly antisocial behavior, thus the soft drinks served at their local hangout. The screenplay even tries half-heartedly to make a drug metaphor out of their supernatural powers (“It’s addictive!”), but without much success.
Instead, Harlin and Cardone have created a world where kids seemingly act without adult supervision, and where what adults can be found are venal, cowardly or weak, but one which still requires parental intervention at the end to save the day. There’s a lot of obvious looping in the dialogue, so it’s possible that many of these contrivances are a result of late-production tinkering, but had the filmmakers been given free rein to follow through on the half-interesting premise of an all-out battle between teen sorcerers, perhaps they could have produced a guilty pleasure along the lines of Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea (though one car crash scene featuring some hilariously awful CGI comes very close). Unfortunately, all we get are good-looking “teens” not doing much other than running from unscary CGI smoke-phantoms and engaging in prudish, clothes-on nookie. Even old-timers like me need more excitement than that.