Back in the late 1950s, there were these nifty toy cars made in several pieces and held together by rubber bands. The objective was to propel the car into a wall so the pieces would fly apart like in a real wreck. It could then be reassembled and you were ready for your next head-on encounter. (What were the manufacturers, retailers and parents thinking in that “innocent” decade?) I had one of the cars, and I thought it was great. (My parents were less enchanted; I was good at running it into the wall but limited in my abilities to put it back together. Hey, I was 4 years old.)
I bring this up because, as state-of-the-art horror flick effects are concerned, Renny Harlin’s The Covenant is somewhat less convincing than those cars — especially when the movie tries to duplicate that very sort of crash with the most cartoonish CGI seen in many a moon. Not that better effects would help all that much. This inane film is definitely a wayward canine in need of an animal-control officer. We’re not even in “so-bad-it’s-good” territory here — this is just bad. Even last week’s release, The Wicker Man, offered Nicolas Cage in a bear suit screaming hammy lines like, “My legs! My legs! You bitches!” Nothing that entertaining occurs in this manure-encrusted compendium of dullness and ineptitude.
The story centers on four generic, studly young college (or maybe it’s prep school) gents played by Steven Strait (Sky High), Toby Hemingway (Indio, USA), newcomer Chace Crawford and the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch (Snakes on a Plane). They’re not quite your average boys, since they have inherited the witchcraft powers of their forefathers (witchcraft is genetic?) — a deep, dark secret that seems available to anyone with access to the school library. They also — at least according to the script — stand out in a crowd. You couldn’t prove this by me, because they look just like most of the other guys at this school. Indeed, I had a hard time telling the central character, Caleb (Strait), apart from his evil nemesis at several points in the film. In other words, they look like a boy band off the cover of Tiger Beat. As actors … well, they’d make great underwear models — which the film establishes with more beefcake than you’ll find this side of a Victor Salva picture. The best performance comes from someone named Chritian Baril in the role of “Dead Teenage Boy.” (How’d you like that on your resume?)
Their powers — which seem to consist of flying about and hurling balls of ectoplasmic ooze at each other — have the downside of being both addictive and debilitating, making the user old before his time. This may be an attempt to give the film some kind of antidrug moral center. If so, it fails. So does nearly everything else about the film, which exists as a series of largely unrelated scenes until the plot finally kicks in. This plot — that the long-missing fifth descendant of the original covenant has showed up and wants Caleb to deed his powers over to him — doesn’t actually improve the film, but at least it affords it something like a shape.
Director Harlin throws in all the atmosphere and pseudo-atmosphere he can beg, borrow or steal, but never manages to conjure up even marginal coherence. Either all the buildings at this school look alike or everything from the dormitories to the admissions office to the library are in the same building. Or maybe Harlin just inserted the same basic shot of a creepy-looking building in an attempt to buffer the clunkiness of the transitions from scene to scene.
The big supernatural showdown in a disused but remarkably well-preserved 300-plus-year-old barn is in reality the big supernatural letdown. Horror pictures of this ilk work best when they go over the top. This never gets off the ground, offering nothing but a silly variant on the already silly battle of the wizards played by Boris Karloff and Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s The Raven (1963) — only there it was supposed to be silly. I’ll concede that the kids here are more decorative when filling out postage-stamp-sized bathing attire than Boris or Vinnie would have been, but Harlin eschews that sartorial look for this scene. Too bad — it might have helped, and nothing else does. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, sexual content, partial nudity and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke