There are some interesting ideas in this film, as well as solid acting and stunning cinematography, but this respected work from Spain is neither as original nor as shocking as it intends.
Films shot entirely or, like Coven of Sisters, partially in the regional Basque language are still relatively uncommon, and the film portrays the Castilian Spaniards as contemptuous of the local language and culture. Yet this is not the first film to address the subject of local witch hunts nor even to be called Akelarre, its original title and a Basque term for 'the witches' Sabbath.'
The film successfully builds suspense and moves surprisingly fast for its limited settings, thanks to engrossing, close-up performances by several of the main actors, in particular Brendemühl and Aberasturi. The artistic use of light and shadow, and studied framing (see especially scenes on the sea cliffs and of the six women staged in their makeshift cell), make the film attractive to watch as well. It won several technical prizes at the Oscar-equivalent Spanish Goya Awards.
The sense you get watching Coven is that its creators intended very much to shock. The problem is that its predictability doesn't leave a lot of room for that (warning: spoilers ahead). It's more or less expected that the men, even those of the cloth, will be aroused by the idea of attractive young women involved in sexual, albeit satanic, rituals.
When the captured girls simulate being possessed, their contortionist moves, wagging tongues, guttural chants, and wild dances are curious but not frightening -- precisely because we believe they're acting. Judging by the final scene (think Thelma & Louise circa 1609), the director seems to want to leave us with a small doubt about whether the women actually hold secret powers. This is less successful than what the film does aptly convey, which is the unjust victimizations of brutal, sadistic witch hunts.
Strangely, though, the film teeters on the edge of falling into its own trap -- and undermining its intended feminist messages -- by offering up the actresses' youth and beauty in its own nearly exploitative way. A naked-from-behind bath scene wasn't entirely necessary, nor were repeated female references to large phalluses, nor a cringe-worthy line about Lucifer using charming young women "who have just left childhood behind" as bait for men.
Read the full review at Common Sense Media.