THE COVENANT (no relation to the 2006 film of the same name) opens in sombre fashion: we first meet grieving parents Sarah (Monica Engesser) and Adam (Chris Mascarelli) at their daughter Elizabeth's funeral.

Later that evening, Sarah goes to bed despondent as Adam stares despairingly at his late daughter's drawings. He refuses to discuss matters with his wife. Moments later, he enters the bedroom and wakes Sarah from her slumber. "It's all your fault" he hisses before raising a pistol to his head and blowing his brains out.

With such traumatic events under her belt, Sarah is taken under the wing of her brother Richard (Owen Conway). He takes her back to their childhood home in the small town of Globe. The house has stood empty ever since their mother died in it some years earlier.

When asked why she's there, Richard tells Sarah "I thought coming home might help you ... make a fresh start ..." She's not overly convinced; it's evident that her memories of the place are less than pleasant.

It doesn't take long before Sarah's feeling vindicated about her reservations. She hears her daughter's ethereal voice while taking a bath; creepy old lady Molly (Maria Olsen) is prone to spying on her and Richard from across the street; visiting neighbour Amy (Liz Manning) is burned by her own crucifix necklace the very moment Sarah touches her; the cellar door keeps beckoning Sarah to explore it, with guttural demonic voices and apparent threats from a dark past.

Most mere mortals would, I'd wager, get the fuck out of there at this juncture. But not Sarah. She's upset and voices her dislike of the place but, with a gentle bit of persuasion from Richard, she's quick to agree to stay a little longer.

Adding to the intrigue, meanwhile, Richard bumps into a mysterious stranger while out shopping, a man adorned in black (Richard Lippert) who suggests that leukaemia sufferer Elizabeth's eventual demise - she drowned in the family bathtub - made for a suspicious end to her tragic life. Richard takes offence at what's being insinuated and brushes the stranger away. But the seed of doubt has been planted in his mind. And this man in black keeps appearing in public places to taunt Richard from afar, resulting in the recovering alcoholic becoming just as strung-out as his sister.

Pretty soon Sarah is being visited by visions of her late daughter, and she's happy again as a consequence. More than happy, she's acting really strange - self-harming and the like. Richard's struggling to cope with his sister's behaviour ... but this is just the beginning of the nightmare he's brought upon himself.

Was Sarah responsible for her daughter's bathtub death? Who is the man in black and are his threats to be taken seriously? Is Sarah becoming possessed, as Richard eventually suspects?

THE COVENANT, directed by Robert Conway and co-written by he, his brother Owen (yes, Richard in the film) and Christopher R Smith, is a curious proposition.

I was initially ready to write it off as being well-shot, tightly edited, but fairly vacuous beyond those clear aesthetic qualities. Twenty minutes in and I'd decided it was not only hideously clich├ęd but also blighted by stilted dialogue and corny musical cues. I didn't warm to Conway initially either, on account of him physically resembling Lyle Lovett and speaking in a drawl that I often found hard to understand.

But ... I stuck with it (I'll never, ever give up on a review title ... ever). Guess what? It improved as it went along. I grew to like Conway's character and, despite the occasional mechanical performance, THE COVENANT steadily won my confidence in terms of building a convincing atmosphere of small town paranoia, religious hysteria and growing discontent within the claustrophobic family home environment.

Almost as if it was shot in sequence, the chemistry between Conway and Engesser also develops as the film progresses.

Though never overtly gory, there are grisly moments peppered throughout the film. But the emphasis here is satisfyingly on characterisation, atmosphere and production design. For a low budget film, it looks great - warm hues, stylised artificial lighting etc - and the pacing is just great. Best of all, THE COVENANT manages the absurd feat of being both conventional and unpredictable: it follows the tropes of many a demonic possession flick, but also goes to places that you never expected it to. I'm not going to spoil the surprises...

So, yeah, despite initial misgivings I stayed with THE COVENANT and after 87 minutes I can say I really enjoyed it. It does have wooden performances and stilted deliveries during its first act, sure, but everything gets tighter and much more intense as the action rolls on.

Currently the film is available on demand courtesy of Uncork'd Entertainment. I recommend it.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Uncork'd Entertainment