A grieving mother enlists the help of a rude Occultist to perform a grueling ritual which will allow her to summon her guardian angel.
Writer-director Liam Gavin’s feature-length debut, A Dark Song, is what I expected it to be and not at all predictable. It’s claustrophobic and vibrant, surreal and concrete, fanatical and affecting, brutal and poignant. I was apprehensive before watching A Dark Song because I just didn’t know what to expect. With a magic-summoning-things film I thought we were going to get crazy body horror and deeply disturbing images as whatever the characters conjure starts to hunt them down. The trailer (which I rarely watch anymore, but which auto-played on Netflix…) looked like this was going to go down the road of BDSM, which isn’t my thing. And while some of those things do skirt around the edges of this film, they’re more like refrains to this dark song, which handles the powers at large with tentative, solemn gloves.
Sophia (Catherine Walker) hires Joseph (Steve Oram) to facilitate an excruciating, laborious ritual to help her fall in love with someone. He quickly sees through this, shoving her off, but she opens up a bit more, telling him she wants to speak to her dead son. He harshly admonishes her that she must tell him the complete truth, lest the powers they’re summoning destroy them completely. He’s purchased a large manor in rural Wales–there they will lock themselves away for potentially eight months and begin the rite which involves blood magic, the potential for ritual sex, water torture, fasting and body purification, breaking Sophia down to almost nothing so that the angel will come to her.
This is only the beginning. They cover the house in candles and symbols, invoking the angel, but knowing full well that as they go further down that road, they’re also opening up themselves to whatever else might want to stumble out and into their reality. Sophia, it turns out, is reckless and ready to let the world around her burn as long as she gets vengeance for her son’s death. She “doesn’t do forgiveness.” This sort of darkness begins to attract the wrong sort of entities, and they must act quickly so that they achieve their goal before they lose everything.
Catherine Walker does a good job of playing the cold, driven vengeance-seeker, but Steve Oram captivates us all with his dark, slightly comedic performance. He plays the fastidious sorcerer, guiding Sophia through these ceremonies, both encouraging her and breaking her down day-by-day. He’s deeply flawed and disturbed himself, but is much more honest than Sophia is. Liam Gavin directs A Dark Song with a spare, deft hand, finding moments of true humanity and beauty in the midst of the darkness. It’s not oppressive in its darkness, nor is it overly complicated or brutal in its gore. Its Hitchcockian in its suspense and Hereditary in its mood.
Emotionally draining and intensely atmospheric, A Dark Song is also surprisingly moving. On one hand, it’s the tale of two people using dark magic to make a terrible pact with unknown forces, but in the end, it’s not that simple.