Ever walk into the wrong bar? One where you know, right away, you don't belong?
That happened to me once in a very rural town in Wyoming, when a friend and I wandered into a bar in which everyone wore a cowboy hat and boots but us. My friend had a Fu Manchu, and I was sporting a pony tail and a beard. One drink (try not to show fear!) and we strolled out of the bar, then ran like hell for the car. And yes, the bar emptied onto the streets as a dozen guys tried to catch up with us, our tires squealing as we headed for the Interstate.
So why am I telling you this? Because a) standing out is one of the main themes of "The Covenant," b) the film is so pitched at teens and young twenty-somethings that I felt as if I had wandered into the wrong bar again, and c) my story had more honest suspense than this film by Renny Harlin.
Maybe part of the problem is that there's such a focus on being twenty-something that it takes away from an atmosphere of suspense. It's as if writer J.S. Cardone drew inspiration from teen slasher pics, where the whole first act seems to exist only to show teens partying and pairing off so that they're set up for whatever goremeister is out there, and we're set up for what happens too often in bad horror/thrillers. You watch, hoping something better will happen, or, if your own hormones are raging, waiting to see whatever nudity the film promised. Usually, there's disappointment in that area too, so it's strange to see that plot template here. With a reference to Harry Potter and supernatural powers at its center, you'd think that the filmmakers would have taken a different route. But this really plays out like any old B-movie slasher pic. All the tropes are here:
In spades. "He's cool." "She's cool." They're all cool. They party on the beach. They flirt. The girls talk catty about other girls and say how much they like this guy or that. And the guys? They snap each other's butts with towels, or push and shove over perceived insults. They walk like state troopers with their chests out and arms poised as though they're walking into an Old West town ready for a showdown. Chink. Chink. Chink. So much testosterone, so little sense. But it's an element of every teen slasher pic because it plays to the main audience and sets up the kids as being preoccupied with fun, so the horror to follow seems even more horrific. In theory.
No self-respecting teen slasher pic can be set anywhere except a remote location. They party so far out that it takes the cops a while to get even close to these illegal drinkers (many of whom look to be in their thirties, by the way). But just about every scene feels as if it's taking place in a ghost town. No one is ever around. It's supposed to be scarier that way. Even the dormitory at Spencer prep school is totally deserted every time one of the characters is walking around. What a dead school. And I seriously don't know of a single young woman who would take a shower alone at night in a communal bathroom with practically no lights on anywhere and the halls dark and deserted. Did everyone else not make it back from the beach party yet?
Why is it always two attractive girls who emerge in these films as the eye-candy for the audience and such obvious victims for the slasher-dude that they might as well wear t-shirts that say "Fresh Meat" or "I'm the Bait." Here it's Sarah (Laura Ramsey), a new blonde transfer who came from Boston Public and has tattoos. No wonder she stands out. Her roommate is Kate (Jessica Lucas), and just as you never want to be the hero's best friend in a film, you certainly don't want to be best friends with the female lead. From the minute you're seen with her, you're marked as the first victim. Am I right?
Stephen King once described the horror genre as, simply, "He's here! No, he's not. He's HERE! No, he's not, HE'S HERE! No, he's not. HE'S . . . . AHHHHHHHHHH!" The best of the fright-fests work this formula like Joey Tribiani worked a roomful of women. How YOU doin? The worst make clumsy attempts. But false alarms are crucial to how believably scary a film is. "The Covenant" seems more predictable than some of the best slasher pics, and partly that's because the false alarms are about as frightful as a fake fire alarm. Then there are the nudity false alarms--the titillation scenes where you wonder if you're going to see something. It happens when we see the girls in their skimpies lying in bed at night talking girl-talk, and it happens when these guys and girls just happen to be on the swim team and we get some shower-room action.
While the writer and director are getting sidetracked with slasher-film tropes, what could have been a promising plot seems to spin its wheels. I mean, I was ready for the director's take on descendents of Salem witch-style power, to see what ramifications it would hold for those with power and those who were powerless. It even started out well enough. We're introduced to four "Sons of Ipswich" who have a "secret." They are the descendents of four of the five families who founded the Ipswich colony, and they possess powers that were inherited from generation to generation. It all has something to do with the witch trials and such, but the film doesn't really explain these details well enough, which is why the sons come across like costume-less Power Rangers. But one day, when a boy dies at an underage drinking party, things change. The four start to see "a darkling" in various permutations, and they at first suspect each other is using their powers for purposes other than pranks.
That's unlikely, though, since these powers come with a built-in "don't use" clause. The more they're used, the more the user ages prematurely. They get these powers on their 13th birthday (when they're TEENS, the film's main audience) and they "ascend" to greater powers when they turn 18 (legal drinking age in many states). So Caleb (Steven Strait), Pogue (Taylor Kitsch), Tyler (Chace Crawford), and Reid (Toby Hemingway) try to find out who's using powers that seem at least as great as theirs. Suspect number one (and there are no other suspects) is a new kid, Chase (Sebastian Stan). It sounds better than it plays out, which is to say that teen-soap performances, bad dialogue, and a lackluster plot don't add up to much of a scary movie.
The 1080p picture looks decent, though as with most films of this sort everything has a dingy, blue-black cast to it, and there's so much darkness you think you're at the North Pole. Given these limitations, there's a good amount of detail and only the slightest grain in some scenes. "The Covenant" is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The featured audio option is an English PCM 5.1 uncompressed, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai, and additional audio options in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1. As you might expect for a film of this sort, there's plenty of rear-speaker action, and the sound of footsteps in a long, isolated hallway really echo.
There are two extras: a pretty standard audio commentary in which the director tells how he did what and why, and "Breaking the Silence," a 20-minute featurette that includes interviews with most of the main cast and many of the filmmakers. I found the short feature more enjoyable, perhaps because it was a little painful watching this film a second time around just to hear Harlin's commentary.
After a promising start, this film someone managed to become dull. It lacked the suspense of the best films in this genre, didn't cover any new ground, and featured a script with dialogue that's just a notch or two above "YeaAHHHH, baby!" With all that stellar dialogue and good-looking people posturing, it has a real retro feel: like, "Beverly Hills, 90210." It's only 97 minutes, but "The Covenant" feels longer.