“Harry Potter can kiss my ass!” shrieks one of the studly young warlocks at the core of the occult prep-school thriller “The Covenant.” But Harry’s the one who ought to bend over for this muddled and most unmagical offering, which Sony’s Screen Gems unleashed in theaters Friday, no doubt wielding good-luck charms and box office talismans in lieu of advance press screenings. Attractively cast, CG-heavy pic should cast a brief spell on teen audiences before being banished to homevideo.
“No one really knows how The Power came to be,” a somber text scroll begins at the outset, before going on to explain how during the Salem witch hunts in 1692, five families in the New England colony of Ipswich entered into a covenant of silence to ensure the survival of their magic powers and their respective bloodlines. More than 300 years later, the youngest descendants of the witches of Eastwick — sorry, Ipswich — are a quartet of male students at the elite Spenser Academy.
Laconic, good-looking Caleb Danvers (Steven Strait) is the unofficial leader of the pack, which comprises long-haired motorcyclist Pogue (Taylor Kitsch), impassive Tyler (Chace Crawford) and Reid (Toby Hemingway), a troublemaker who can’t resist using magic at every given opportunity. That’s a problem because, as the boys have already begun to find out, their powers are not only highly addictive but also self-destructive, causing them to age prematurely with every use.
The trouble begins shortly before Caleb’s 18th birthday, when he’s due to “ascend” and achieve his highest powers. After flirting with Boston public-school transplant Sarah (Laura Ramsey) and befriending a mysterious newcomer named Chase Collins (Sebastian Stan), Caleb begins to experience disturbing visions in connection with a student’s recent untimely death.
As she grows closer to Caleb, Sarah also begins to feel haunted, as does her roommate Kate (Jessica Lucas). It isn’t long before Caleb begins to suspect that Chase is somehow involved and possibly even linked to the original covenant, spurring him and Pogue to do some digging in the Ipswich archives.
What they uncover further complicates the murky mythology at the heart of J.S. Cardone’s screenplay, which revels in dialogue ranging from the silly (“He’s just jealous because you’re ascending first!”) to the sadly ironic (“This is beyond idiotic!”).
From its creepy-crawly scenes of characters covered in bugs to its equally derivative marketing materials (the key art shows the boys walking sinisterly abreast at night), pic suggests an XY-chromosomal variation on “The Craft.” That 1996 thriller about a coven of high school witches at least tapped into a vein of goth-adolescent rage, whereas “The Covenant” blandly casts its lot with a group of petulant pretty boys (if there’s a market for hot male witches in Speedos, this film has it cornered).
As directed by Renny Harlin, pic reps an uneasy hybrid of the helmer’s previous forays into supernatural horror (“Exorcist: The Beginning”) and straight-up action (“Die Hard 2: Die Harder”). Special effects are reasonably restrained until an overly protracted climactic duel, which revels in “The Matrix”-style suspended acrobatics and flying balls of energy straight out of “Donnie Darko.”
Pierre Gill’s lensing is forebodingly dark throughout, while production designer Anne Pritchard turns almost every interior into a haunted, cavernous mausoleum. Tomandandy’s hard-slamming music supplies some vigorous but not especially scary accompaniment.