Stars: Monica Engesser, Owen Conway, Clint James, Sanford Gibbons, Maria Olsen, Shawn Saavedra, Amelia Haberman, Greg Lutz, Richard Lippert | Written by Robert Conway, Owen Conway, Christopher R. Smith | Directed by Robert Conway
“Sarah,” husband Adam says, holding a gun to his own head. “It’s all your fault.” It’s not an easy lot in life, being tragic heroine Sarah Doyle. As if the brutal one-two punch deaths of her husband and daughter weren’t enough to contend with, the poor woman finds herself beset by paranormal activity upon returning to her childhood home.
As its opening moments may suggest, there aren’t too many (intentional) laughs to be had with The Covenant, a low-budget supernatural slow-burner which takes its spirits as seriously as it does itself. Bunking with her estranged brother Richard, Sarah is forced to face demons, both metaphorical and literal – as well as navigating the miserable kitchen sink drama which comes with such a story. Almost inevitably, these dark forces take over (it’s a metaphor for grief, see), leaving hapless sceptic Richard to deal with the fallout. What follows is a battle for Sarah’s very soul.
Following the likes of The Conjuring 2, Ouija: Origins of Evil and The Exorcist TV show, a low-budget non-entity like The Covenant has its work cut out in rising above the cliché. There are, after all, only so many variations upon the theme – and most of those themes feel pretty played out these days. What Robert Conway’s feature has to distinguish it from the rest is its adult victim (although The Exorcist TV show went there too) and low budget. The lack of funds available for visual effects means that Conway doubles down on the mood, putting Sarah in an awful position and then just heaping the misery upon her from there. Well, it worked for The Babadook.
Sarah Engesser and Owen Conway do well enough, but neither of them are Essie Davis. And the film’s beast is no Mister Babadook, either. Still, the film’s cast are a cut above those who usually tend to populate cheapo modern horror – and most notably the supporting lot, who round out the neighbours and various oddballs Richard collects on his way. The sole exception is Sarah’s dead husband, who fumbles the opening (and what should be the film’s darkest moment) so badly in a moment of unintentional humour, that Covenant spends the rest of its running time trying to recover. Much like Sarah herself, really.
Largely, however, The Covenant is well-supported by both the writing and performances. It’s on the nose in a special way that many no-budget horror films tend to be, and pushes the grief metaphors too hard, but the story’s structure is solid, and at least it is a film about something. There’s much to be said for that, these days.
If you can look beyond the atrocious (and thankfully sparing) CGI effects, ghastly cheap visuals and mixed-bag writing and performances, Covenant is well worth one’s time. It’s atmospheric, thoughtful and spooky, and an addition to the subgenre that doesn’t let the side down… even if, like Sarah, it does get off to a really rocky start.
The Covenant is available on demand in the US on February 7th, courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment.