A determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want.
April 28, 2017
Mark Huberman as Neil Hughes
Susan Loughnane as Victoria Howard
Steve Oram as Joseph Solomon
Catherine Walker as Sophia Howard
Ever feel like you’re privy to something great? There in the dark, just you and the shadows on the wall, it’s a private conversation. Ego is replaced with vulnerability, posturing with innocence. You’re a child again. Too pretentious? Yes, indeed. But nothing I write will ever give due justice to the masterpiece that is A Dark Song. A rare and beautiful moment for any reviewer. Go and see it. The end. Fade to black.
But lo, there must be a review. A Dark Song is about a determined, or foolhardy, young woman named Sophia, (Catherine Walker, in what is sure to be the crown jewel of her entire career). Broken by a horrible tragedy, Sophia hires the aid of an alcoholic occultist, (Steve Oram), for one macabre purpose only: to raise the soul of her dead son through a nefarious ritual. Movies do not get more supernatural than this. Not that a simple logline will adequately convey the film’s ennui, or really anything about its brilliance. Yes, A Dark Song is one of the most brilliant horror films I have ever seen. In horror, there is commercial fare, there is experimental, and there is arthouse. A Dark Song manages to be all three. A goddamn rare feat.
But I’ll refrain from sycophantic gushing, and give you the straight dope. This is a slow-burn, a character potboiler, a psychological thriller with next to no gore. If you’re not in the market for that, watch A Dark Song anyway. You will see some stabbing, and it will carry more emotional weight than a mindless slaughterhouse. Writer-director Liam Gavin goes for pure craftsmanship, a beautiful and delicate balance of story, emotion, visual design, mood, and performance.
And the performances are astounding. Catherine Walker’s portrayal of Sophia is a kind of open wound; a woman so scarred by the death of her child, she will do anything for some scrap of closure. Sophia is pitiable, but her desperation ironically becomes her strength. Showing grief on camera for one hundred minutes is like an Olympic marathon, and Walker wins the gold. She is nuanced. Sometimes funny, sometimes unlikable, but always believable.
Sophia’s relationship to sleazy occultist Joseph is the heart of the film. Steve Oram commits wholeheartedly to this rather repulsive character. In order to raise the spirit of her dead child, Joseph has to lead Sophia through an extended and taxing ritual, a kind of bastardized Stations of the Cross from Catholicism. She must purify, speak and write Latin phrases, subject herself to icy water torture, all in the hopes of reaching the altered state where spiritual communication is possible.
In short, Sophia has to do everything Joseph says. The BDSM overtones are vividly apparent, with Joseph being the dominant. At one point, he tells Sophia that “sex magic” will be involved. Is it really for the ritual, or just his own sick pleasure? A grieving mother will do anything after all. He is detestable to be sure, but Oram finds the redeeming qualities in Joseph. He is an addict, as dependent on sorcery as booze. Joseph believes his magic is real. He is no conman. So he will do anything to get his fix. That character parallelism makes for compelling drama.
What lies at the end of their journey? The ending is dynamic, mystic, but laced with a nagging doubt. Is there more beyond the physical realm, or is everything that happens just a product of Sophia’s addled brain? “Science makes everything small,” Joseph says bitterly. “But religion and magic, they know life is big.” I will not spoil what Sophia finds, but rest assured, it’s not what she was looking for. There are shades of The Babadook to be found here.
The cinematography by Cathal Watters is meditative and baroque, like a Rembrandt painting. For a film shot relatively quickly in twenty days, A Dark Song is reserved and studied in its approach. It’s a credit to Gavin’s directorial instincts that he channels Hitchcock and Terence Fisher, rather than fall into the trap of overplayed but expedient handheld camerawork. The film doesn’t use quick cuts, it follows linear geography in its shot progression, and it’s not afraid to take its sweet time. All of which adds up to a bit of a throwback, the kind of gothic atmosphere that used to be the Hammer Films mainstay.
But the real triumph is the screenplay. A Dark Song sets up its own internal logic and sticks to it at every turn. Character motivations are clear and interesting. Not a single scene is superfluous. Plot points are set up and paid off beautifully. The tone is pitch perfect, with a dreamlike finale that is reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s hypnotic Juliet of the Spirits. And the themes run deep, from familial loss to the permeability of human perception.
A Dark Song comes courtesy of the good distributors at IFC Midnight. It will see DVD and limited release on April 28, 2017. Don’t miss it, Horror Freaks.