Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 8, 2006, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Sigh…the film business just ain’t fair sometimes. Lucky McKee’s atmospheric, well-thought-out youth chiller The Woods (reviewed here) gets inherited by Sony only to get dumped into no-frills DVD oblivion, while the shallow-slick, muddled The Covenant lands nationwide big-screen release under the company’s Screen Gems banner. In fact, this Lost-Boys-meets-The-Craft-and-not-as-good-as-either represents an intersection where direct-to-video and theatrical sensibilities meet, not surprising given that director Renny Harlin is a veteran of several major Hollywood productions while screenwriter J.S. Cardone has been busy in the DVD-sequel trenches for the past couple of years. And The Covenant feels like no less (or more) than one installment in a home-video supernatural series—the closing shot even establishes its narrative as a chapter in something called “The Book of Damnation.”

The backstory of said volume, which chronicles five families of witches and warlocks and their persecution over the centuries, is laid out in creepy-font titles as the movie begins, followed by opening credits played against enough multilayered images, jump cuts and subliminals to stock a year’s worth of music videos, backed by a remix of Rob Zombie’s “More Human Than Human.” When a movie starts out with this kind of cheesy energy, one can at least hope that it’ll carry through the rest of the running time and deliver some guilty-pleasure entertainment, but don’t look for that here. Also don’t look for a lot of storytelling logic; not long after we’re told that the descendants of those five families are committed to keeping their powers secret, we witness four of their young, handsome scions pulling an attention-grabbing stunt, driving their SUV off a cliff in front of some pursuing police.

Said youth are members of the Sons of Ipswich, attending an elite boarding school in Massachusetts (atmospherically played by Montreal-area locations). And trouble with the law isn’t what concerns them; rather, there’s lots of heated discussions about the use and misuse of their supernatural abilities, overuse of which can lead to premature aging. There’s also much discussion of an event called “the ascent,” which will occur on the boys’ 18th birthdays and significantly increase their powers—and the temptation to employ them. What there isn’t is a compelling storyline to put these ideas to good use; instead, the barely developed plot meanders through a budding romance between Ipswich boy Caleb (Steven Strait) and cute new student Sarah (an appealing Laura Ramsey), occasional CGI-enhanced confrontations and plenty of clunkily expository dialogue.

Oh yes, and apparently somebody’s misusing their powers, creating witchy mischief and causing some of the group to have scary nightmares and visions—or, as one of the guys puts it in a phone call to another, “I just saw a darkling!” There’s way too much mythology getting in the way of the story here, and not enough time making the characters distinctive, or coming up with interesting or unique setpieces. Instead we get a lengthy scene of Sarah, showering in her dorm (which always seems remarkably deserted), getting the feeling someone’s watching her, and another which attempts to derive suspense from two guys breaking into an administrative office to dig through the files of another. Apparently their occult gifts are good for staging Matrix-style fights but don’t lend them much extra perception; the plot eventually centers on the Sons’ attempts to uncover the villain in their midst, but none of them are seen even attempting to supernaturally suss out his identity.

Eventually, of course, the baddie is unmasked, even more explanatory backstory is spoken and the movie arrives at its climax and ostensible piece de resistance, in which Caleb and his antagonist demolish a barn as they hurl CGI whammies at each other. There’s at least a spark of energy to this sequence, which comes as a relief after Harlin’s surprisingly humdrum direction of the rest of the film, which also could have used a touch of wicked humor to leaven the solemnity with which it’s played. The biggest laugh here is a bad one, when the evil young warlock tells the hero that he’s going to “make you my wi-otch!”

There are hints of possibility throughout The Covenant that might have found flower if the filmmakers had fully exploited their horrific or erotic potential. Instead, the movie has been neutered down to PG-13 level and barely has any fun with the idea of what supernaturally gifted teenagers might really do with their powers. It’s a horror movie that, for quite a bit of its running time, doesn’t seem to want to be a horror movie. Sigh.

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