A desperate young woman and a volatile occultist lock themselves away from the world and practice ancient and dangerous black magic in A Dark Song, which opens in cinemas Friday.
Liam Gavin’s first feature film trades on mystery in its early stages. Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) speaks in clipped sentences to an estate agent – she intends to rent a house in the Welsh countryside for a year, but her reason for doing so is unclear.
We see the dusty, abandoned rooms of this old house, which is not overly appealing as homes go. Spooky cellos allude to unspoken motivations.
A Dark Song’s opening makes for intriguing watching. Sophia is clearly a woman in search of something, but it’s a classic case of “show don’t tell”, as Gavin uses close-ups and long takes rather than exposition.
I’ve previously admired Walker’s work in 2014’s Patrick’s Day. In that film, she played another woman on the edge. Walker has a very expressive face, which plays well to Gavin’s not-that-wordy script.
Early suspicions that something eery is afoot are soon confirmed by the introduction of Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), a man who looks for all the world like a truck driver or roadie.
Sophia has enlisted Solomon’s services as a shaman of some sort. She must face her demons and Joseph is her guide and facilitator; he will help her in bridging the gap between life and death.
A Dark Song tells much of its story through montage. We see a number of sequences in which Sophia and Joseph prepare the house for the upcoming black-magic ritual. These sequences have a little humour to them, as the prep work looks a lot like regular housework.
Joseph reveals more of himself to Sophia as well. He’s a serious and hot-blooded person. He wants her to consider the gravity of their situation.
These initial interactions between the two are tense. Solomon is quick to anger and on more than one occasion erupts into a fury and shouts down Sophia for questioning him.
Close-ups of Catherine Walker’s face show us a steely resoluteness. She is sure of her actions, and her determination is underlined by her monosyllabic interactions with Solomon.
He runs through the hardships ahead: “Days without sleep. Fasting. Backbreaking rites, ritual sex. Are you ready for all that, darling?”
Sophia replies in the affirmative. Solomon seals the house with a ring of salt, and the ceremony begins. As with the preparation scenes, montage is used effectively to dilute the passage of time.
Made to sit in a chalk circle, Sophia looks at a rock for two days while repeating a mantra. Taking us through this trial and others are rapid cuts and slower contemplative shots of the interior of the house.
Time is diluted for the audience as well. It becomes hard to keep track of the order of events, something Gavin draws explicit attention to later in the film with a particularly grizzly blood-ritual sequence.
Although we may want to, we are not allowed to look away from Sophia’s suffering as our eyes are drawn to the screen through the skilful ordering of grotesque and fascinating imagery. One of the rites looks to be a form of water torture; in these sequences Gavin uses slow-motion photography to emphasise Sophia’s discomfort.
Other snapshots are bizarre and almost comical (almost). For some reason, a major aspect of the ceremony is the removal of Solomon’s body hair. We see Sophia painstakingly shave his arms, chest, and back.
As the film goes on, the pair begin to resemble a dysfunctional couple in a particularly grim kitchen-sink drama. Horror cinema by way of Ken Loach.
Coming back to the shaving sequences for a moment, scenes like these cast suspicion on Solomon, who for all his talk of dark magic often appears as a mountebank. Sophia frequently questions whether the ritual is working at all. Solomon’s tone is desperate as he reassures her; Sophia is the key to what he’s seeking as well.
The film shifts gears as we reach the end of the second act and enter the third. The rites and ceremony take a back seat in favour of more standard genre fare. We move into haunted-house territory for a time. Though the film is lean at 100 minutes, these later sequences failed to one-up the surreal and spooky imagery from the film’s first couple of acts.
There’s definitely a lull in A Dark Song once it starts to resemble a ghost-house picture, but the film manages to rally toward the end with a sequence that is exceptionally beautiful.
By showing us the lowest of the low, Gavin sets the stage for a surprising and moving finisher. Dark forces and ritual misery give way to something truly affirming.
Like Breaking the Waves or The Exorcist, A Dark Song’s greatest moment comes through clever misdirection, it’s not the film it appears to be, sometimes for better, other times for worse.
Here and there, A Dark Song takes some ill-advised turns, yet the strength of its visuals and performances, and its brave ending sequences result in a strong feature debut for Gavin and a horror that ends up feeling fresh.