By Elias Savada.
Grief changes you. It can drive you to do dark and drastic things outside your normal routine. Such aberrations are the creepy core of Irish director Liam Gavin’s moody chamber piece, A Dark Song. This excursion into the realm of magick was influenced by the life and strange times of legendary occultist Aleister Crowley a.k.a. The Beast 666 and The Wickedest Man in the World. The latter designation is also the title of a 2002 BBC documentary about this strange, disturbing fellow. That television program, a good primer for folks wanting to learn about the self-proclaimed prophet’s eerie paranormal leanings (and can be found for free here), greatly impacted Gavin, so much that a good portion of his disquieting feature debut oozes Crowley, particularly how it relates to an obscure ritual known as the Abramelin Procedure, used to connect and converse with the Holy Guardian Angel.
Thirty-something Sophia Howard has had a grief-changing moment, big time, and her coping mechanism has failed after the murder of her son, Jack. She wants justice to bring forward the unknown killers, yet after exhausting normal avenues, she believes it’s time for a way-out-of-the-ordinary exercise. After paying an exorbitant amount of money to rent a remote, dank house in Wales, she hires occultist Joseph Soloman to guide her through a months-long ritual that she hopes will bring her revelation and closure.
The procedure is anything but simple, or pleasant. It’s harrowing, dark, and discomforting. If you’re in the audience watching these characters endure their unsettling trip into deprivation and depravity, you might need to close your eyes to collect yourself during several extremely intense scenes.
For a first feature, Gavin certainly provides plenty of anxiety-inducing moments. Especially for the duo of Catherine Walker, a British theatre, film, and television actress, and Steve Oram, a stand-up comedian who starred in and co-wrote Sighteers, Ben Wheatley’s hugely entertaining black comedy about a couple who justify murder as a civil service and civic duty. While that 2012 film was reviewed as “funny as hell” by Empire, A Dark Song heads to the other end of the spectrum, although hell is still a big part of the equation.
Cutting themselves off from all outside influences, including the ceremonial circling the house with a ring of salt (perhaps most hokey scene in the film), the characters move about the dark mansion with uneasy resolve, fraying each other’s nerves, purifying their bodies, and hoping for the proverbial signal from the other side. With the help of his cinematographer, Cathal Watters (who shot the film over the course of a quick 20 days), the film’s tone darkens subtly as the distraught, yet hopeful, mother journeys deeper into the world of the damned. And, while the pair (and the audience) aren’t sure what will come of all their mumbo-jumbo, certain teasing epiphanies start to waltz across the screen.
By the time the story’s satanic shit hits the other-worldly fan, the realm of darkness and the world of life are slamming doors and butting heads with unexpected company, courtesy of a little black lie from Sophia. The film may not look like a million bucks, but it is quite frantically edited by Anna Maria O’Flanagan (Gavin calls her his “co-pilot). The tribal motif in the score (by Ray Harman) also helps. A Dark Song is now arriving on American shores through IFC Midnight, after a ton of festival outings. Fans of the genre should definitely check it out.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).