The Covenant

There must be a lot of embarrassment in the Screen Gems offices this week. They had this schlocky direct-to-video movie “The Covenant” waiting to be shipped out to America’s Wal-Marts and Best Buys, and then somehow it accidentally got released into movie theaters! Into actual cinemas where actual movies are being shown! Whoops!

“The Covenant” is the story of four identical-looking swimsuit models who also happen to be students at an upper-crust Massachusetts prep school, who also happen to be witches. The first-born son of every generation in their four families starts to experience magic at age 13, with the full range of abilities coming into force on their 18th birthdays. But to avoid persecution (Massachusetts has a checkered past when it comes to witches), the boys’ ancestors, the founding fathers of the town of Ipswich, made a pact centuries ago to keep their powers a secret.

The chief lad among these four is Caleb (Steven Strait), a good kid who eschews the school’s dormitory so he can live at home and take care of his alcoholic mom (Wendy Crewson). (The dorm, rather improbably, is co-ed, so Caleb is really making a sacrifice here.) His wingman is Pogue (Taylor Kitsch). Reid (Toby Hemingway) is distinguished from the others by being the only blond and by being rebellious against the no-magic-in-public rule. Tyler (Chace Crawford) is a character who serves no purpose in the film whatsoever.

They’re all decent kids, more or less, paragons of society, the top guys on the school swim team, call each other “bro” a lot and do that thing where they bump their fists together instead of shaking hands. (My movement to refer to the knuckle-bump as “fisting” has not caught on.) But odd, magic-related things start happening, including the appearance of horrific apparitions. Someone is using his witchcraft without authorization. Who could it be?

I’m not spilling any secrets here, but MAYBE it’s the new kid who just transferred in, Chase (Sebastian Stan). He is ALSO a good-looking swimmer with an air of mystery about him, and he has been trying to integrate himself into the guys’ inner circle. One of his methods is to hit on Pogue’s girlfriend Kate (Jessica Lucas), which seems counterproductive, but whatever. He’s not a suspect yet, but he’s definitely a person of interest.

Oh, and there’s also a new girl, Sarah (Laura Ramsey), for whom Caleb has he hots. She is the focus of many of the strange occurrences, suggesting whoever’s using magic has his eye on her, too.

The film, written by direct-to-video veteran J.S. Cardone and directed by the famously craptacular Renny Harlin (“Cutthroat Island,” “Cliffhanger”), actually has some cool mythology in it. The idea of magic being addictive — the kids refer to it as “using,” the way other people talk about drugs — is intriguing, as is the notion that over-use of witchcraft will cause you to age prematurely.

But of course since this is a PG-13 movie aimed at teenagers, anything resembling thought, depth or creativity must be covered with a thick veneer of Gen Y-friendly pap. Everyone’s gorgeous and buff and in a state of undress as often as possible, the soundtrack blares grungy rock tunes, the dialogue and acting are shallow. If the movie were TOO supernatural, it would become geeky and therefore less marketable. You have to keep things relatively normal to attract the 16-year-old girls and the boys who date them.

Also worth noting is the film’s climactic battle, which is a letdown. After all this talk of the four sons of Ipswich sticking together as a team, the climax involves … one of them. A second is out of commission, and three and four are just, um, not there. Like, they’re at a party or something. Why make a film about a coven of four Harry Potters if your story is really only about one of them? Ah, because four Abercrombie & Witch models look better on the poster than just one.

D (1 hr., 37 min.; PG-13, some locker room nudity, moderate profanity, a little violence.)