A Dark Song (2016)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: September 5th, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
For most horror movies, a shady, possibly unholy ritual is just a launching point for some further carnage. You know the sort of movie: a group of people (more than likely dopey teenagers) gather in an ominous house with a sordid history and decide to raise hell, with their incantations serving as a setup for them all to be eventually knocked down in gruesome fashion. A cursory glance at the logline for A Dark Song perhaps signals something similar since the familiar ingredients abound, like an ominous house where folks dabble in black magic. However, for writer/director Liam Gavin, this ritual isn’t just some threshold waiting to unleash haunted house theatrics; it is a horror unto itself, a torturous psychological and physical crucible capable of forging one into a twisted soul—or, perhaps, something else, as the ending here suggests.
But first, the heart-wrenching setup: out in the desolate wilds of the Welsh countryside, Sophia (Catherine Walker) scouts a huge mansion, asking several cryptic questions to the real estate agent along the way. When she decides the home is to her liking, she immediately pays cash and makes plans to move in, with every act feeling somehow guarded. This is a wounded woman still reeling from some grief, and we soon learn that she’s been in contact with Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), an occultist capable of reaching into the beyond and making contact with the dead. Specifically, she wants to summon her own guardian angel and speak one last time to her recently deceased son, a tragic event that’s left her wracked with guilt and regret. Despite Solomon’s ominous warnings that this will be an exacting ordeal that could take months, Sophia steels both her nerves and body for the excruciating ritual, which eventually tests her patience, sanity, and bloodlust.
Despite its hellraising implications, A Dark Song is not very concerned with assaulting viewers with explicit ghastliness. Instead, Gavin is content to let its atmospherics work on the audience: there’s something dreadful and suffocating about the premise alone that doesn’t require overdone theatrics to unsettle the audience. Any embellishments are subtle: sparse, haunting musical cues, the distant howls of a dog that may double as a signal from the beyond, jarring repetitions of time and space to accentuate the grueling, seemingly endless nature of this ritual. Occasionally, there are squeamish, curious disruptions, such as a scene where Solomon forces Sophia to drink his blood in order to cleanse her, but even these moments are in the service of heightening the natural tension.
Most of the film rests on this natural fault line rumbling beneath Sophia and Solomon, two complete strangers shacked up together for the duration in a sort of mercenary setup. Obviously, there’s something quite off about Solomon, a curt, almost ruthless occultist who demands complete subservience from Sophia. Oram’s performance is expectedly shifty, providing more than a few hints that he may just be exploiting his client to get his own sadomasochist rocks off. In one of the film’s most overtly disturbing scenes, he informs Sophia that they must engage in a sex ritual and orders her to strip before him as he gets himself off, much to her horror and embarrassment. It should be a breaking point for her, yet he insists they must continue: he’s “only a man” after all, and, besides that, leaving the house and violating the sacred circle he’s drawn around them could have catastrophic consequences.
But there’s something else lurking beneath Sophia’s decision to stay. She’s desperate for any chance to reconnect with her son, yes, but she may also be equally as desperate for any type of connection or companionship. Quite impossibly, there is a softness to Solomon that she can’t shake, and between bouts of taxing incantations, the two shoot the shit, exchanging details about recurring dreams and exploring their motivations. Oram is quite charismatic and weirdly friendly even though Solomon is often perverse and maniacal, and that sort of nuance speaks to the type of complexity on display in A Dark Song.
Because as guarded and evasive as Solomon is, Sophia is equally as cagey—if not more so. Armed with a mean streak of her own to combat the occultist’s perversions, she’s capable of holding her own, and Walker crafts an affecting portrait of a woman on the edge of oblivion. “I don’t do forgiveness,” she bluntly intones when Solomon insists she must do so in order for the ritual to take hold, hinting at some darkness compelling her. A Dark Song propels on the intrigue surrounding Sophia, whose initial story shifts and contorts as the ritual wears on, seemingly without any effect whatsoever. Her mounting frustration is shared by an audience being strung along just long enough by Gavin, who slowly unravels Sophia’s true motivations. Something darker waits beneath her initial story, yet it only makes her desperation even more understandable.
As the breadth of Sophia’s story unfolds, Walker’s turn becomes all the more heartbreaking and opens the door for a stunning climax. Up until this point, A Dark Song has the subtle trimmings of a horror film but remains grounded by Gavin’s impeccable, reverent treatment of the ritual at hand. The exacting nature of it all allows the performances to shine and communicate each character’s anxieties before dovetailing into a more explicit horror freakout. Even this turn of events defies expectations: what begins as a phantasmagoric Carnival of Souls riff featuring goblins and ghouls ends with a weird, beautiful display of dark fantasy. Imagine the haunting sublimity of Martyrs, only not nearly as soul-crushing, as Gavin is exploring more than sheer, unrelenting horror here.
Some might argue that the climactic turn of events of A Dark Song out of the realm of horror altogether, but make no mistake: this is an exhausting, sometimes punishing journey into a dark night of one woman’s soul. Torture is usually reserved for the flesh, but Gavin proves that psychological torment is even more horrifying. A profound, unshakable dread lurks in every eerie establishing shot of the house and in each draining, sweltering ritual performed by Sophia and Solomon, two damned souls looking for something beyond. Within, there is nothing but existential angst in their twin guests to arrive at some kind of meaning; without, there is some remarkable, dogged sense of hope, albeit one that can’t be found without exacting pound of flesh after all.
After a nice run as a festival darling and a VOD release earlier this year, A Dark Song hits physical media via a Blu-ray release from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight, who have once again churned out a quality disc. Not only is the presentation impeccable, but the release also boasts more special features than most of the company's’ recent horror fare. Separate interviews with Gavin, Oram, Walker, and DP Cathal Watters clock in at around 25 minutes in total, giving viewers a brief, kind of fluffy glimpse into the production. Ten minutes of deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and some storyboards complete a solid release for one of the year’s more compelling, distinctive genre offerings. It also marks the arrival of an exciting new genre voice in Gavin, who has proven there’s still life and ingenuity to be found amongst a familiar formula, so long as you’re willing to poke around and look hard enough. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: