Occult practice is rarely presented accurately on film, which typically regurgitates tropes from previous movies as well as imagery culled from various Satanic Panic clichés. So it’s all the more surprising that A Dark Song—writer/director Liam Gavin’s 2016 debut—not only tells a compelling and atmospheric tale that waffles effectively between psychological thriller and supernatural horror, but also manages to capture some of the detail and essence of actual occultism.
Sophia (Catherine Walker, in a truly stunning performance) is a woman still reeling from the death of her child several years before. Tortured by grief and anger to the point of all-consuming misery, she seeks out the services of Mr. Solomon (the appropriately acerbic Steve Orem), a weathered, withered occultist who has seen too much and is himself drowning in bitterness. They attempt to undertake the magick ritual of Abramelin, an intense working that involves a torturous amount of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual discipline. Sophia hopes to summon her Holy Guardian Angel so that she might ask to see her deceased son again, and in exchange for Solomon’s services he will also be granted any wish he chooses. As the two enter a months-long seclusion in the Welsh countryside—and as stranger and stranger phenomena begin to occur—serious questions arise about Sophia and Solomon’s respective intentions.
More or less a two-person play taking place in one setting, A Dark Song is thankfully short on shock cuts, excessive gore, and nightvision glimpses of ghostly manifestations. Instead, the scares here are achieved through mood and suggestion, with Ray Harman’s minimalistic but unsettling score occasionally enhancing the creepiness, while other moments are punctuated with quiet. (One memorable scene, involving the sound of someone banging on a door, has no music at all and is possibly the scariest thing I’ve watched in years).
A large portion of the film hinges on whether Solomon is a genuine mystic or a sadistic con artist merely driving Sophia insane. This uncertainty gives the movie a paranoid charge that renders virtually every scene disturbing to some degree. Walker and Orem are tasked with anchoring the entire movie, particularly as the proceedings grow more fantastic, and both actors do just that, a true feat considering that these characters are so broken that at times neither is particularly likable.
The look of the film harkens back to John Carpenter’s use of widescreen to capture intimate as opposed to epic horror, a juxtaposition that has recently found renewed popularity in such movies as The Void, The Hateful Eight, and the underappreciated The Lords of Salem, and is employed almost perfectly here. Cinematographer Cathal Watters lingers upon the moors and hills of the countryside, the mazelike hallways of the rented rural house, and the property’s verdant adjacent pond, treating each with an ethereal, almost religious reverence.
The ritual portrayed here is very much real, and the tools and symbols utilized by Solomon will be familiar to any practicing occultist. That being said, there is of course a fair amount of artistic license taken. Attaining the presence of one’s Holy Guardian Angel is a goal in several occult traditions—and typically a significant rite of passage—but it doesn’t always demand sequestering yourself for six to eight months. (Otherwise many magicians would not have jobs, or families, or even electricity). And Gavin’s take on the material is more Catholic and medieval, rejecting the approach of modern magick circles which view these concepts not as literal Judeo-Christian angels and demons but as aspects of the Self. (A line of dialogue early in the film has Solomon specifically dismissing the latter view).
Indeed, the story reaches a conclusion that one could argue is more Catholic than anything, yet it works despite all the occult shenanigans preceding it. Without giving away the film’s dramatic shift in its final act, the ending offers something surprisingly beautiful and haunting, not entirely losing the spookiness but still striking a note of awe.
A Dark Song is many things: a moving portrait of two lost people helping each other through the darkness, a deeply frightening haunted house tale, and a treatise on the possibility of the miraculous. It is also one of the best horror films of the last decade.
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