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