The long running marriage in film and TV of the occult, youthful promiscuity and gothic culture has always earned itself fans amongst disenfranchised youth...
...When I was growing up, the alternative scene was in full swing. Moody, gothic inspired films like The Crow (1994), and The Craft (1996) became mainstays for me and my gang of misfits. Flash forward to present day and these types of films aren’t anywhere near as fashionable as they used to be. Still, I have a soft spot for these angst-ridden stories and their charming spells (yep, I went there) still have a hold over me. Director Margaret Malandruccolo and writer/actress Lizze Gordon have teamed up to tell a sexy tale of youth, loss and destiny. This film may have seduced me with familiarity and ties to my rebellious upbringing, but does this spell have a lasting effect?
Sophie (Lizze Gordon) is a shy, young college student who spends most of her time with local occult expert, Robin (Jocelyn Saenz) who teaches her to hone her supernatural abilities. Sophie is on a quest to find out more information on her deceased mother, who has handed down her powers from many generations. Eager to make a psychic connection with her, Sophie looks for a way to speed up the process, even if it means disobeying her mentor. Close by on campus, a coven of witches’ target Sophie and seek to exploit her desires in order to resurrect a powerful ancestor, who is thought to grant them unimaginable power. Overwhelmed by the insistence of the coven and tempted by the possibility of bringing her mother back, our protagonist is faced with a series of life changing decisions that may even alter the fate of the entire world.
For lack of a better analogy, Coven is like sitting in a newly furbished sports car, only to realize there’s no engine. It’s a great looking film, but almost every other element that make up this production is either poor, or not utilized properly. The acting is all over the place. For example, in some scene, Lizze Gordon comes off as very natural and conveys a convincing girl next door vibe, while other times her line delivery is stiff, awkward and ultimately suppressed. I definitely see talent in her, but perhaps she needed the appropriate comfort level to allow herself to loosen up a little. The other girls range from good to tolerable. The supporting character of Beth (Margot Major) is a highlight, as she injects a much-needed dose of humor to the film. Her bumbling, nervous quirkiness (while caricature-like) is refreshingly character focused. A trend I’ve seen in horror lately is a distinct lack of identifiable character traits, so it’s nice to see a character who actually differentiates herself from those around her. While the actors vary in quality, all of the characters are at least written with conflict in mind and it’s entertaining to see the fun, sometimes cruel interplay between them. It’s a shame that Sophie is actually the weakest character and she’s our protagonist.
Where Coven really falls apart is in the execution of the story. Everything about the plot is painfully routine. I was never looking for a deeply threaded narrative with “no way!” moments, but the story follows a predictable structure that never stimulates any genuine interest. There were several occasions when the film could have introduced a unique turn of events, but it’s played ultra-safe here, never daring to challenge the audience to think harder than they have to. Had our protagonist been likeable, it would have helped the film’s intrigue immensely. I’m perfectly content with a simple story, but we need to at least root for someone. Sophie comes across as a selfish conqueror, having little regard for her consequences. She also displays an annoying lack of patience and never heeds the advice of her mentor. It would be one thing if she learned from her mistakes. In classic Joseph Campbell fashion, many protagonists exhibit these very characteristics, but Sophie doesn’t have an arc of any kind. Her hero’s journey is absent of transformation.
To give credit where it’s due, the sets, costumes, and on-location shoots are all top notch. Starting with the overall color palette, everything has a well-lit pop to it and the aesthetics really do bring the film to life. The post processing filtering effects never look cheap here and give the film a signature energy. Costumes (while mostly lingerie) are suited well to our powerful, seductive women. They also wear them with confidence, which can make all the difference in some instances. Sets are dressed and decorated with rich detail and areas that could have otherwise been bland and unmemorable, are paid close attention to flesh out our characters. For example, the coven lair is essentially an old airplane hangar and it’s dressed with luxurious furnishings and decadence that paint the coven leader, Ronnie (Jennifer Cipolla) as a bit of a spoiled ice queen. Also, Robin’s cozy little magic shop is as busy and cluttered as you might expect, with potions, bottles, candles and of course, dimmed moody lighting. The effort given to detail is quite admirable and it’s the details like these that elevate Coven above many other films that don’t value the little things.
Coven feels like it came out a few decades too late. Still, even if it had been released in the prime of alternative gothic culture, I don’t think we would have seen this film hit cult status. There are just too many fundamental flaws with its storytelling and in a genre picture like this, you need a strong, likeable lead. I do think Lizze Gordon harnesses talent, but I don’t think this will serve as a reliable star vehicle for her. It’s a shame that the character of Sophie is so poorly put together. I do, however, applaud the film for its visual flair and attention to detail with the very impressive set decoration and costumes. It’s most certainly not a bad looking film. Also, some of the supporting characters are a lot of fun and seeing their little quarrels and dramas unfold is entertaining in a high school rumor kind of way. You may get a little kick out of this if you’re a fan of the far better The Craft, but just be sure to temper your expectations. The magic fades quickly with this one.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth