A Dark Song is a film to be nerdy about and one which embraces its nerdy ways. It would be more precise to call the film detailed, committed to being authentic. It’s something rarely seen these days, unless said detail is Product Placement. It’s also another one of those films which I was touted as being ‘the scariest of all time’ which both intrigues and worries me, because horror is subjective and because that’s usually a blurb to cover the cracks of a shitty film. Luckily, it’s not a shitty film, nor is it the scariest ever. It’s a solid, grief driven horror movie more concerned with detail, foreboding, and creating a somber tone – and it largely succeeds in delivering on each of those points.
If you weren’t aware, I always enjoy limited scope films – films with a single set or a very tiny cast or some other limitation which tends to mean filmmakers are more creative to work around those restrictions. A Dark Song is essentially a two character, or two actor movie, and for the most part is set in a single location. That location is a large Country House in the middle of nowhere, and the performers are Catherine Walker (Sophia), and Steve Oram (Joseph). Sophia is a grieving mother who has sought out the Occultist Joseph in order to perform a serious of rituals which will allow her to eventually speak to her dead son. Joseph is angry, bad-tempered, distrustful, while Sophia is guarded and defensive meaning the two clash regularly. Part of the ritual means they must live together in this house for many months, without ever leaving or making any contact with the outside world, following various increasingly difficult rites which bring forth both demons and angels to torment and test the pair. The plan is that if someone is worthy enough to complete these rites, a guardian angel will appear and grant any wish.
The film almost plays out like a Mike Leigh film – if Leigh was concerned with the Supernatural and Occult Rituals. It has that kitchen-sink realism and gritty downbeat British tone, all wrapped up in the overall theme of the lengths we go to with grief and guilt, and propelled along by depictions and discussions of the various exercises one must perform to step through the various realms of Heaven and Hell. These involve sleeping in certain places, types of mental and physical torture, drinking blood, chanting, drawing arcane symbols etc. With the fraught relationship between the pair, and the months of punishing tests, tempers fray throughout the movie and the viewer is never sure if it’s all an exploitative joke.
I’m curious to see how viewers will react to this film – horror fans and non-horror fans alike. For horror fans, you’re made to wait until closer to the end before anything overtly horror related makes an appearance while the first half of the film or so is intriguing enough to me in exploring the characters’ relationship and snippets of the history and background of what is being performed. There is a pay-off, and it mostly worked for me, but I imagine others may be frustrated by the ending. I would argue that the ending is exactly what the character needed, and for the viewer it should be the journey that matters – some questions concerning the mother and son aren’t answered, and people may feel those should have been resolved.
Oram is his usual warts and all self – he’s a physical actor who always seems to be eating or scratching or gesturing, while Walker plays the exhausted woman well. Director and writer Liam Gavin shows a genuine interest in the rituals and mythology taken from the Abramelin books and adds enough open-ended intrigue to make me want to go down the rabbit hole. It’s an assured handling of tension and of whatever scares come later, but he does seem more concerned in the build up and the lore and the emotion, than making a scary movie. It’s his movie, and that’s fine, but the marketing may suggest it’s something that it’s not. For me, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking film of the sort which is rare these days.
Let us know in the comments what you thought of A Dark Song!