The Covenant revolves around a coven of hard-bodied Harry Potters in a Northeastern prep school. They are descendants of those famously accused witches of Salem, who were apparently the real deal after all. It's pointed out to us that these boys are actually more like witch-kids than witch-men, because they haven't yet reached a crucial birthday in the life of a male witch. At age 18, they will "ascend," which means they'll receive some kind of cosmic endorsement of their witchy virility and gain extra powers. They're already incapable of dying -- we see one of them smash his car head-on into a Mack truck, only to have the car and driver re-assemble in mid-air. But, horror of horrors, they can still grow old. The main witch, Caleb (Steven Strait) takes his new girlfriend Sarah (Laura Ramsey) to meet his father, a bedridden invalid who looks like Hugh Hefner after an hour in the tub. "He's 44 years old," Caleb whispers to Sarah, causing her to bite back a scream.
Age is a constant theme in The Covenant: The main characters discuss "turning 18" throughout the film, usually before or after one of the scenes in which they peel off their clothes and flex finely-chiseled abs. At times, I felt like I was watching a Barely Legal video. When one member of the coven turns 18 on the exact same day his disapproving-of-witchhood parents meet a grisly death, Caleb must figure out whether or not they have a poison apple in the bunch, and if so, how best to go about voting him out of the group. What results is a proudly mediocre mash-up of The Craft and Making the Band. It would all be straight-to-video flotsam if not for the strangely endearing quirks of director Renny Harlin, who's coming off a touch-and-go decade since he was forced to walk the plank over Cutthroat Island. Only Renny would include a scene where two witches are standing toe to toe, about to do battle, and one refers to the other as a "weeyatch."
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Renny Harlin has a definitive style that carries over from film to film, but he does have an abstract sense of humor -- maybe nothing more than a side effect of bad judgment -- that tends to make his movies more watchable than they should be. A running, unacknowledged gag in The Covenant is that "using" magic is like using drugs. The boy band witches confront one another with "Are you using, man?" and "You know that using is addictive, man!" One of them is even confronted by his mother about whether or not he's been "using" and where he picked up all these new adults-only powers in the first place. I hoped against hope that he would turn around and scream out "You, all right! I learned it by watching you!" No such luck. The Covenant doesn't have the guts to become a full-fledged comedy, which it easily could have been. For most of the film, the actors are forced to pretend that all of this is deadly serious business.
As for the visual effects, you have to except a certain amount of CGI hooey in a film about witches that fly through the air and put spells on each other. But thankfully, Renny is very good about avoiding noticeably bad CGI. He's content to cut around what he doesn't have the budget to do competently, which is a much better strategy than the one used by films that insist on shoving appallingly cheap computer effects at us with no embarrassment at all. (Yes, I'm talking to you, XXX: State of the Union.) There's also a scene in the film that requires spiders to crawl all over the face of an actress, and if they were computer-generated I really couldn't tell, so I guess they passed the test. They could have worked a little harder on the medicine balls of witch-power that the good guy and bad guy hurl back and forth at the climax, but now I'm just looking for things to complain about.
I was nominally happy when I went into the theater to see The Covenant and nominally happy when I came out, so I guess I can't say I was seriously displeased with the film. Everyone has a certain kind of Kaelite trash they can bear, and I was able to withstand this trash without any long-term damage to my cerebral cortex. I didn't feel like it was trying to rip me off, which might be a better way to put it. Renny Harlin still knows how to stretch his effects budget to the max and slip his crazy Viking humor into the corners of any kind of low-budget genre pic. But I do look forward to the day when he is welcomed back into the fold of mainstream Hollywood and forgiven for that little "causing an entire film studio to be shut down by making a movie that lost so much money it's in the Guinness Book of World Records" thing. They can't hold a grudge about that forever, can they?