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“The Covenant” Was Queer-Bait Before It Was Cool

Thursday, August 12, 2021 | Stab Me Gently

By JUSTIN MCDEVITT

A few months into the pandemic, my friend Grace explained their vision of what the world would look like once we reopened. They described a collective yearning that would drive The Horny Ones into the streets for all the sex. I have been waiting longingly for that moment. Instead of sex, I can happily toil away the hours scrolling through The Criterion Channel and never watching anything, searching Shudder and almost watching something, and then turning to Hulu to rewatch seasons of The Bachelor I already watched four months ago. There is so much to do when one is not having sex, but selecting a movie is not one of them. 

Somehow, in between sips of chilled red wine and belatedly learning what a fuckboi is, I decided to watch what purported to be an all-male version of The Craft starring a gaggle of Ryan Gosling understudies. Yep. This week I’m dishing on the 2006 supernatural horror film THE COVENANT. Starring Steven Strait (The Expanse), Sebastian Stan (Gossip Girl), Laura Ramsey (She’s The Man), and Chace Crawford (Gossip Girl), helmed by Renny Harlin (onetime husband of Geena Davis and Nightmare on Elm Street 4). 

We open with a stylized credit sequence (which might have been created using PowerPoint) scored by an indistinct, mid-aughts emo rock tune, and the nostalgic trip to the not-so-far-away-past has begun. A voice-over proclaims, “No one really knew how The Power came to be.” As cheesy as it sounds, I am curious. The Power refers to the magic that runs through the descendants of witches in Massachusetts. We meet our descendants at an underground party in the woods, making me wonder if my New England upbringing would have been similar if only I had friends. 

Caleb (Strait) is the dashing leader of the male witches, who’s a thrilling combination of Josh Hartnett and James Lafferty. He meets new transfer Sarah (Ramsey) who is derided for coming from public school… because snobbery and elitism are, what, sexy in 2006? Please no. Chase (Stan) is also a new transfer to Spencer Academy, and he quickly befriends Caleb and his fellow Abercrombie greeters. Sarah and Chase arriving at the same time could suggest a potential love triangle situation but to me, it feels like Sarah is sort of thrown in because otherwise this would all be undeniably gay, rather than plead the fifth gay. Chase is a bit of a loner who is VERY interested in Caleb. 

“While pockets of The Covenant strike a queer note, what’s missing is any sense of wit or irony.”

After the party, Caleb returns home to his mansion where his alcoholic mother (Wendy Crewson) waits up for him. We are supposed to pick up on the fact that she’s an alcoholic because she’s sipping slowly on a single drink whilst lounging in a leather chair by the fireplace. This awkward conversation allows us to glean a little more backstory; the magic in this world mirrors drug addiction (very similar to season six of Buffy). In fact, Caleb’s dad got so into The Power that it prematurely aged him and he could die at any moment. I don’t love the magic/addiction storyline. What’s the point of using The Power at all if it’s just going to kill you? That’s like living in a city where your local superhero can only protect civilization on Monday afternoons.

While pockets of The Covenant strike a queer note, what’s missing is any sense of wit or irony. Caleb and his merry band of witches don’t read as gay when they speak. These people are queer entities in heterosexual makeup. They are outsiders who look like models. They are outcasts with money. They are the privileged others. The two female characters are cinematic beards with very little to do. In two different sequences, Chase has Sarah under a spell where she can’t move and he messes with her appearance while Caleb watches in horror. These moments further illustrate the point that the women in this movie are treated as pawns, not people. Is it sexism? Yes. Is it bad writing? Also yes.

THE COVENANT bears some resemblances to 1996’s absolutely-perfect-in-every-way The Craft. Chase gets addicted to the evil side of his Power in a similar fashion to Nancy (Fairuza Balk), but the magic in The Craft is largely based in the earth (dare I say it’s grounded in reality?). It strives to be *slightly* realistic. The Power referenced over and over again is so poorly developed and I want more. Did this writer watch The Craft? Caleb is eventually thrown into a bathroom mirror in what I hope is an homage to the climactic battle between Nancy and Sarah in Andrew Fleming’s far superior film.

This Nathaniel Hawthorne soap opera comes to a head when Caleb “ascends,” which basically means, at eighteen, he fully comes into his powers, although we’re told over and over again that he, under no circumstances, should use those powers. Confusing. Caleb and Chase face off in a Matrix-style duel involving lots of slow motion and power balls. As dumb as this Battle of the Chin Dimples was, I kinda liked it. And that’s what this movie is all about: enjoying garbage. With the help of his dying father (who is giving total Grandpa vibes from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Caleb defeats Chase, proving he is the best witch in all the land.

I wondered if some of the film’s alleged queerness comes from the fact that these burly men are taking on a role more typically associated with women. But, in the sweet peak of Harry Potter time (which I like to define as the halcyon era before that dumb play and those transphobic rants), did anyone even blink an eye at male witches? The unavoidable truth is that THE COVENANT is not a gay picture. It can be interpreted and enjoyed through a queer gaze, but it doesn’t have to be. Throbbing with sexual tension between a who’s who of 2006’s most hetero Tiger Beat coverboys, THE COVENANT is a textbook example of queer-baiting before that term had hit the mainstream: an artifact of the era when the terms “metrosexual” and “no homo” were on everybody’s lips, and playing coy with sexuality still seemed like a cute thing to do.

I stay on the couch as the credits roll. I don’t go outside in search of The Horny Ones. Instead, I open Shudder and do some scrolling. I kill time in hopes that something, anything will happen. What should I watch next? You tell me.

Thoughts? Lamentations? Withering critiques? Gentleman Caller applications? Comment below or reach out to me directly on Twitter and Instagram.

Justin McDevitt
JUSTIN MCDEVITT is a writer originally from Boston. His plays HONEY FITZ, SUBMISSION, FINDERS, TELL ME HOW I DID, THE HAPPY, and THE TRUE MARTINI have all had readings and productions in New York City. He co-wrote and directed WHAT ABOUT US: LIVING WITH LYMPHEDEMA, a play-with-music benefiting the Lymphatic Education and Research Network. Stream his six part monologue series SEVERED HEADS on Youtube. @justinwritesplays