Irish Film Review: A Dark Song

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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

99 minutes
16 See IFCO for details

A Dark Song is released 7th April 2017

A Dark Song  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Podcast: Liam Gavin, ‘A Dark Song’

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Paul Farren caught up with director Liam Gavin to chat about his character-driven horror A Dark Song, which follows Sophia, a young woman who insists on renting an old house in the remote countryside so that she can hire an occultist named Solomon. She needs him to perform an ancient invocation ritual, the Abramelin, to summon up Sophia’s Guardian Angel so her wish can be granted. She wishes to talk to her murdered child, a desire that consumes her.

The ritual is an extremely arduous one. They are to seal themselves in the house for months as it plays out. As they get deeper into the rite they run the risk of turning on each other, of going mad. But when Solomon finds out that Sophia has not been truthful about her wish, a greater danger threatens them. In the dark, they find that they are no longer alone in the house. They are now in the world of real angels, and real demons. The house is surrounded with a line of salt, it is the only protection they have. They must not cross it, no matter how bad it gets.

 

A Dark Song is released in cinemas 7th April 2017

 

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Review of Irish Film @ Cork Film Festival: A Dark Song

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Loretta Goff is haunted by the lingering horrors of Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song

Trapped by her grief and guilt after the loss of her young son, Jack, Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) leases a remote country estate in Wales and hires Joseph Solomom (Steve Oram), an occultist with his own troubles, to perform an Abramelin invocation, ostensibly to speak to her son again. It is through a blurring of her grief, grounded in reality, and the occult, which is unknown, otherworldly and risky, that the atmospheric horror of A Dark Song slowly builds.

Rather than jumping immediately into horror territory, Irish writer-director Liam Gavin gives proper attention to the process of the ritual, which takes a minimum of six months. Gavin’s measured approach allows us to fully realise Sophia’s determination and feel her sorrow as we see her endlessly write scriptures, and repeatedly face sleep and food deprivation, spirit and body purification, and blood and sex ritual in order to break down the boundaries between her world and the next. Throughout these scenes a sense of unease and discomfort pervades, assisted by a strong soundtrack, but there are no real scares. Instead, the first two thirds of the film follows a more figurative haunting of Sophia by the murder of her son and her struggle to cope with it, linking this to an anticipated haunting of the house as part of the ritual, which is hinted at by unexplained sounds and the disappearance and reappearance of Jack’s old toy.

The tension of the first two thirds of the film is drawn from the oscillating relationship between Sophia and Joseph and the shifting balance between the known and unknown. Once the house is sealed at the start of the ritual, they cannot safely leave its confines until the invocation is finished many months later. Joseph warns that now “everything has consequences”. Sophia must follow all of Joseph’s rules very closely and trust him with both her life and the outcome of the ritual, just as he must trust that she is truthful about her intent and process. However, as the house becomes more isolating and incarcerating (shades are often drawn and we no longer see the expansive sky highlighted in the opening scenes of the film), and the invocation appears to repeatedly fail, the two lash out at one another with distrust and unconfined emotion, revealing deceptions and darker motivations. Excellent performances by Walker and Oram throughout the film successfully add its the dramatic, serious tone.

The traditional horror moments of the film may feel a bit short, only fully occurring in the final third of the film when the ritual finally succeeds and we feel the ultimate danger of the occult (with otherworldly figures and noises in full force), and the film’s ending may surprise horror fans. However, this film does not feel bound by the traditions of the genre, instead choosing to make us ponder moral and religious questions while taking a close look at the power of grief and its drastic effects on us. Rather than relying on spontaneous shocks, the horror of A Dark Song instead lingers with you. Ultimately, the film is a strong feature debut from Gavin and hints at a promising future for the director.

 

A Dark Song screened on 15th November at the Cork Film Festival 2016

 

 

The Cork Film Festival 2016 runs 11 – 20 November

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