DIR/WRI Liam Gavin • PRO: Cormac Fox, Tim Dennison, David Collins • DOP: Cathal Watters • ED: Anna Maria O’Flanagan • DES: Timothy David O’Brien • MUS: Ray Harman • CAST: Cathrine Walker, Steven Oram, Susan Loughnane
The house with a story is a generically recognisable and inarguably iconic horror staple; think the grand, ghostly manor of The Others, the interrupted safety of the family home in The Orphanage, the twisted, glowing, womblike dorms of Susperia. The buildings conjured up in horror films are sites of intense emotion, intense loss, pain, and violence, as if walls can remember the unthinkable, and rooms can hold in past trauma. All it takes is for a new inhabitant to wake the misery up, as if a new presence within the brick and plaster is a needle to the chaos recorded in the walls.
The house as a microcosmic site of suffering is key to establishing the narrative of A Dark Song. Desperate to make contact with her lost son, Sophia Howard (Cathrine Walker), moves to an old and isolated country home – a maze of doors and rooms – positioned deep in the mist of the Welsh countryside. Fraught with guilt and pained by loss, Sophia is willing to do anything to make contact with her dead child, and she reaches out to the volatile Joseph Solomon (Steven Oram) to help her perform an occult ritual in order to ask a favour of her guardian angel. The ritual in question is risky and involves several steps coloured with physical and mental suffering – all while the potential for everything to implode and for demons to crossover and crawl from the walls hangs heavily over Sophia and Solomon’s heads.
While the rituals (performed by Solomon and undertaken by Sophia) are viscerally affective, I would level that the most attention-grabbing element of the film is not the occult, or the potential presence of demons, but the established control and tension between Sophia and Solomon. It is possible, for most of the film, to be at odds as to whether there are any supernatural elements, or truth, to Solomon’s performance, or if he is in fact just an aggressive, controlling con man. Verbally violent and physically aggressive, Solomon is an odious person made self-important by his claims to fighting demons and seeing gods. He exudes male entitlement and holds the hallmarks of an abuser; though he is technically Sophia’s employee, he positions her as his servant, he’s condescending and verbally threatening, he throws tantrums that involve violently smashing up rooms, he uses the guise of important ritual to sexually harass her, he drowns her so that she can be “reborn”, and he gaslights her consistently throughout the film. The promise of demons quickly becomes less threatening than the actions of Solomon, a factor which provides little depth of commentary other than establishing another factor to torture Sophia; here the final girl is less triumphant and more an emotional punching bag, something which could potentially turn viewers off.
With a cutting soundtrack and desaturated imagery, A Dark Song is a film that is gloomy, broody, but which offers little past masculine aggression and the spectacle of feminine suffering. As by generic propensity, the house becomes a playground for torturous demons and bodily horror, but the climax resolution veers too far from the understood motivations of character, and, in framing female forgiveness as a given, distastefully depicts how deviation from this expectation is to be strictly punished, and as a result the film’s resolution, though gritty and intense, is hollow and slightly dissatisfying.
Sadhbh Ni Bhroin
16 See IFCO for details
A Dark Song is released 7th April 2017