A coven of four young witches seeks to recruit a fifth as part of a late-night ritual to summon a demon from their past. So they gather in a candle-lit circle in a spooky ruin and offer a blood sacrifice. The original four get a small cut and bleed a little; the new girl gets butchered by the coven leader as the ultimate offering to the dark power they are calling.
But the conjuring fails. Seems girl #5 wasn’t the right bloodline to make it work so it’s back to the drawing board for the coven, or in this case back to the spellbook to let dark magic guide their way to a new fifth witch.
Although the plot may sound familiar, director Margaret Malandruccolo manages to tell the particular witches’ tale in Coven in an exciting and unfamiliar way, giving audiences a very female-focused, female character-driven story that celebrates women while it also tries to scare the crap out of you.
Coven stars Lizzie Gordon as Sophie, a young woman with latent magical powers who, with the help of a local psychic (Sofya Skua) is trying to harness her budding energies to contact the spirit of her dead mother. Between trying to contact the dead and studying for her midterms, Sophie doesn’t have much time to spare for the coven when they come calling. Their persistence, however, supplanted with a bit of dark magic and the potential Sophie sees of using the coven’s power to supplement hers, soon has her battling back against her better judgment to become the new #5.
While Coven has a few effective scares dropped in along the way, Malandruccolo, working from a script she co-wrote with Gordon and only male cast member Adam Horner, spends a good part of the movie building character and character relationships among the women on the screen. Some of it’s passionate, some of it’s passive/aggressive and some of it is puzzling (at least in the beginning). All of it is important to the story, which immediately separates Coven from the pack; nothing, and nobody, feels superfluous. You never get the sense that anybody on the screen is simply there to be the next victim, which certainly messes with your head, in a good way, as you watch and try to figure out who the next victim will be.
Although Sophie and her quest to contact her mom is at the heart of Coven, the powerful center of the film is the compelling performance of Jennifer Cipolla as Ronnie, the leader of the coven. From the minute she struts into the screen in the opening shot of the first ritual, to the final showdown between good and evil, Cipolla dominates Coven with her commanding presence. She’s not just the badass of the film who does the most damage to those around her. She exudes darkness and evil just standing still waiting for someone else to speak their lines. Her performance sets the tone for the female power anthem of Coven. When you see her dressed in black lingerie in the rituals you can almost feel her dare anyone she doesn’t deem worthy to look upon her in an unapproved way. She’s a powerful woman and a powerful witch and she won’t let anyone forget it.
It isn’t easy for the rest of the cast to stand up alongside such a cinematic force, but the other actors in Coven do an excellent job. Miranda O’Hare is particularly good at playing Jax, Ronnie’s second in command in the coven and in the bedroom. Even during their most intimate shared moments, O’Hare manages to show us there is more to Jax than simply being the best at following Ronnie’s orders, adding a layer of tension to their scenes that is almost palpable.
As the one who must ultimately stand against Ronnie, Gordon is good too, particularly in the scenes where we watch Sophie put together the pieces to solve the mystery of both the coven and her mother’s death. Whether or not what she learns about herself and the other witches will make her she’s strong enough to beat Ronnie is up in the air until the final scene, which adds a nice bit of tension to the big ending.
While there are a few missteps along the way — the lighting in some of the film, for example, is too harsh, as if those scenes were shot under fluorescent lights — Coven is a strong debut for Malandruccolo as a director and as a storyteller. And while there isn’t enough left on the screen at the end for a Coven 2, here’s hoping that she and the Coven cast sign up to work again very soon.
- John Black, Coven