As I sit down to write this review of 'The Covenant,' the Renny Harlin camp-fest that registered with barely a blip in theaters this past Fall, it is the very first day of the year. So I suppose there is some gallows humor to be found in the fact that our first review of 2007 (and the inaugural next-gen title of the New Year) is such a laughable piece of genre pop pap, albeit an extremely entertaining one. But 'The Covenant' is also the kind of film that's tailor-made for the dog days of January (aka the graveyard of home video) when studios have been known to unload the past year's biggest disappointments to a post-holiday, cash-flushed audience desperate for anything new to watch.
Our story concerns itself with an exclusive New England Ivy League college, where the four most popular guys on campus, the pouting Caleb Danvers (Steven Strait) and his three menacing buds (Taylor Kitsch, Chace Crawford, Toby Hemingway) also happen to be heirs to a centuries-old legacy of witchcraft. As the story goes, the Salem Witch Trials weren't just a bunch of bogus hocus pocus -- five families were genetically blessed with extraordinary Wiccan powers which have continued to be past down to the generations, or at least the good-looking teenage males of their respective clan. But wait, it gets even better. Seems this blessing brings with it a terrible cost: at the age of eighteen, the male witches must "ascend," (aka reach full maturity of their powers), which prematurely saps them of their life force and causes them to age very rapidly. Who said being a teen witch was easy?
Into this ridiculous scenario comes cocky new student Chase Collins (Sebastian Stan), whose parents recently died in a car accident. Immediately rivaling the covert witches in hottie factor and washboard abs, he begins to make the moves on the two women in Chase's life -- his girlfriend Sarah (Laura Ramsey) and best friend Kate (Jessica Lucas) -- as well as generally upsetting the apple cart of Wiccan cliques. But when a fellow student winds up dead, and Kate is attacked by demonic spiders (I swear I'm not making this up), the Covenant grows suspicious -- perhaps Chase is more than he seems?
What makes 'The Covenant' so much fun is that it relentlessly panders to the youth market, yet was made by a bunch of forty-plus-something filmmakers long past their prime. That gives it a creepy kick, a kind of lurid shamelessness that I really enjoyed. Like all those manufactured boy bands of years past and the current "American Idol" phenomenon, 'The Covenant' is the perfect pre-packaged, cynical genre picture for the new millennium -- with about as much soul as an N*Sync cover band. Even more hilarious, the movie is perhaps the most gleefully homoerotic horror movie ever (next to 'Jeepers Creepers 2') with enough bulging beefcake for ten Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs and so many gratuitous butt shots that it stretches the boundaries of its PG-13 rating. If nothing else, it is reassuring to know that in the postmodern age of genre movies, both the boys and the girls are now equally exploited, and with such wild abandon.
Admittedly, 'The Covenant' is fabulous trash. It has about as much depth as an episode of "Charmed," combined with production values on par with a superior "Smallville." In other words, it has all the hallmarks of a Great Bad Movie: terrible script, porn-level acting, silly special effects, rapid-fire MTV editing, and an extraordinarily vapid style, courtesy of uber-hack Harlin. And as is typical with these sort of plotty, over-baked scenarios, the audience must be brought up to speed on so much mythology that the characters aren't really given dialogue to say so much as exposition-speak. But because the plot in this case is so ludicrous, it borders on the subversively brilliant. Just like the silliest of horror hokum, all of this nonsense is compulsively watchable, as if every cliche and overwrought convention was put in by hand, with loving care. So, fellow bad movie lovers -- this one's for you. Perhaps 'The Covenant' never truly rivals a 'Showgirls' on the level of sheer camp-tastic excess, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyably awful 97 minutes this year.
Perhaps due the poor reputation of the film and its cheesy nature, I wasn't expecting much in the way of reference video from 'The Covenant.' I was quite wrong. This Blu-ray release really is fantastic, and a superior effort from Sony.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/MPEG-2 video, the presentation is flawless. Though I have no information from Sony to confirm, I suspect this is a true digital-to-digital telecine given how utterly pristine and glossy the image appears. Blacks and contrast are fantastic. Colors are skewed heavily towards blue/cyan, but fleshtones remain as accurate as could be expected given the overt stylization. Depth and detail remain excellent, and natural-hued scenes are even better, with the kind of eye-popping three-dimensional look that blew me away.
The only oddity is a scene about a third of the way through, when the Caleb character takes a drive out to a house in the country. Af first I thought a couple of shots appeared to suffer from bad video noise, until I realized it was actually raining. Oddly, it is not raining in the rest of the scene, so I'll just have to assume this is a flub. Otherwise, I'm giving 'The Covenant' a five-star video rating simply because I can't find a single thing wrong with it.
'The Covenant' sounds as good as it looks. Sony has delivered another winner of an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround soundtrack. Dynamics and frequency response are exemplary. The cleanliness and force of mid- and high-range is superior, and low bass is very aggressive and strong. Surround use is also scorching (to use a bit of hyperbole), with the various witch effects and frequent car crashes boasting exceptional fidelity in the rears. The extended climactic fight between Chase and Caleb in particular wowed me with the force and power of the discrete effects -- this is one bombastic mix. Granted, 'The Covenant' suffers a bit in that it lacks any hint of subtlety, but it's hard to complain when a soundtrack sounds so good, especially if played extremely loud.
'The Covenant' made little impact at the box office, and as such, its Blu-ray release is fairly sparse.
The highlight is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Renny Harlin. Call the guy a hack (I do), but at least he never condescends to the crappy genre films he makes. Here, Harlin is his usual enthusiastic self. Apparently attracted to 'The Covenant' because of its "great story" and intriguing blend of "action, horror and mythology," he goes on at length about casting the kids, the visual style, and the intricacies of the "plot." I know, it is easy to make jokes about a commentary for a movie like this, and 'The Covenant' is a perfect target, as Harlin never once seems to realize how dumb the premise really is. But thank god for that, because the world (and my job) would be a much lonelier place without bad movies like this one. My only hope is that Harlin and Uwe Boll team up for a new motion picture epic someday real soon.
The only other extra is the hilariously titled "Breaking The Silence: Exposing 'The Covenant.'" Exactly what silence has been broken, and what has been exposed remains a mystery, but this 19-minute EPK extraordinaire is a fun watch, with the usual on-set footage and cast and crew interviews. I truly wonder if these people are simply reading off cue cards, or if they really believe it when they say things like, "'The Covenant' is going to have a, like, visual style that looks like no other movie ever!" Priceless.
'The Covenant' is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Sure, it's total crap, and shot like an over-the-top MTV music video, but then what do you expect from Renny Harlin? And the eye-candy only gets better on Blu-ray -- this is a true demo disc, with a fantastic transfer and soundtrack. I don't know if I can recommend this for a purchase except to diehard genre fans, but give it a rent for a great laugh and to experience the Blu-ray format at its best.