What’s it About: Mike is a writer who hates his life, so he turns to alcohol and pills to get through his deadline and his existence. Surprisingly, by combining a lot of booze with a lot of pills, he overdoses and ends up in the hospital. After he checks out, his friend suggests that Mike join a support group in order to cope and stop his downward spiral. But they’re not that helpful, the group. Turns out, they’re actually a coven, but it’s never clear what they’re a coven of. They’re not witches, because they don’t do any witchcraft. There are two separate scenes of the support group, and all of the members tell a story about their addictions. So that means that although they’re a coven of evil witches, they’re also actually alcoholics. They seem to want to “enlighten” Mike by tearing him down first, so they’re kind of like Fight Club. (Actually, there is a lot of Christian imagery associated with the coven, so I suppose the coven is Mark Borchardt’s thinly veiled commentary about the evils of organized religion and how they brainwash the common person. DEEP.)
While Mike is out writing in the freezing woods with a bottle of cheap hooch one day (which is also how Kurt Vonnegut worked) he is attacked by mysterious people in mysterious black cloaks. And by “attacked,” I mean they drag him through some mud, then he slowly runs away. The next day at the support group, they give Mike some kind of hallucinogenic drink. Some of the members start acting nuts, babbling on even more than usual, and the group leader admits that he’s murdered someone, then literally starts babbling. Then the drink really kicks in, and it makes Mike see things in the bathroom such as a preacher babbling on about God knows what and his friend laying in the bathtub, laughing hysterically and bleeding from the mouth.
Mike meets a few of the group members at one of their houses and they have some kind of seance, but it’s “too claustrophobic.” So they tell Mike to meet them at a drive-in theater, in the middle of winter, and for some reason he goes. While there, he’s attacked by the group in black cloaks again, but this time they just destroy his car with baseball bats.
Mike returns to the coven meeting, and they seem to want to kill him, or have him kill himself. Why, I don’t know. Maybe this coven is just people who like to screw with people? Anyway, Mike finally decides that the group isn’t too helpful, and decides not to go back, despite their fear tactics of leaving messages on his answering machine. Mike’s friend comes over to talk him into going back to the group, but Mike’s not interested. The friend brought the worst actress in the movie along with him, but she does no good either. So they attack Mike, naturally, seemingly to get more of the hallucinogenic drink down his gullet. Because they want him to hallucinate again? What does that do for them? They even bring the same chalice. But they don’t count on Mike’s fighting prowess, and he ends up beating the crap out of both of them. After repeatedly punching the girl in the face, she tells Mike through a gallon of blood, “We were just trying to help you…” How? And then the movie just sort of ends.
Is it Actually Scary: For someone who has never seen American Movie and is watching this without knowing anything about it or Mark Borchardt, it’s more unsettling than scary, and the grainy black and white film has a lot to do with that. But you’ll be trying too hard to figure out what the hell is supposed to be going on to be unsettled.
Scariest Moment: Some of the ladies in the support group.
Gore Level: No real gore but some blood during the final epic battle when Mike puts his friend’s head through the cabinet door (although I’m not exactly sure why that would make you bleed profusely) and when he punches a woman repeatedly in the face, which bleeds more blood than the human head actually holds.
Dumbest Moments: The elevator ride that takes roughly 45 minutes to go down two floors. And you have to include the number of times the hair changes among the cast, since this was filmed over a few years.
Best Part: Extremely hard to pick, but for me it’s probably the scene where Mike is rationing out pills for himself (“A little bit’a you…”) and foreshadows his overdose with “And don’t make me regret this, man.”
Best Line: “It’s all right, it’s ok, there’s something to live forrrr, Jesus told me sooooooooo!”
Nudity: Zero, although the coven members may be nude under their black cloaks.
Overall: Coven (pronounced “Coa-ven” not “Cuh-ven” because cuh-ven sounds like oven, man) is not so great… and fantastic at the same time. The support group scenes go on entirely too long, but they’re saved by Mike Schenk’s anecdote snippets. The acting is abysmal, but it’s absolutely great. It runs the gamut from people who can’t act at all to people who can’t act who are trying way too hard to one guy (the coven leader) who seems like he actually can act but is hammier than Christmas Eve at Mama Cass’s house. Then there’s Mark, who is just completely earnest and trying to make a great film out of nothing.
If you’ve never seen American Movie and watch Coven, you’ll probably just be confused and just think it’s a poorly made short. But I really can’t imagine anyone has watched Coven without knowing about American Movie and what went into the making of Coven. If you’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed American Movie, as you should, then Coven becomes more of a companion piece than an actual film. It’s a special payoff to see the end result of what Mark worked so hard on. That Coven is barely even a coherent film doesn’t even really matter. It’s so great to see the cloaked coven members for the first time because you know Mark’s mom is filling in for one of them. It’s awesome to see the head through the cabinet scene, knowing that the cabinet was a little hard to break. It’s hilarious to see every line by the guy with the black beard, who may be the worst actor on the planet. And Bill’s cameo at the beginning will make you pee all over yourself.
There are actually some really good things going on cinematically in Coven. There’s some very good editing, in particular the opening credits that change with the ominous beat of the music. There’s some great, bleak cinematography of the dead of winter deadness of the Wisconsin wastes. Mark seems like he could be a genuinely good director. If only he could finish a feature-length film.Score: 8 (out of 10)