By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Steve Oram and Catherine Walker
Written and directed by Liam Gavin
There have been many horror films about the consequences of raising or communicating with a dead child, but not many focused on the process of getting to that point. In that sense, A DARK SONG blazes a new trail in the genre, and it’s also an uncommonly absorbing and occasionally quite chilling experience.
As much—perhaps more—a dramatic character study as it is a frightfest, Irish writer/director Liam Gavin’s debut feature is a showcase for a pair of rich and compelling performances. Steve Oram, better known for comedic roles both light and dark (the latter most notably in Ben Wheatley’s SIGHTSEERS), is Joseph Solomon, a man wise in the ways of the occult who has been hired by Sophia (Catherine Walker), a woman anxious to make contact with the spirit of her deceased young son. It’s clear from the beginning that this is not going to involve your typical seance or overnight ritual: Sophia is spending a good deal of money to rent a countryside house in Wales and stock up on enough supplies that she doesn’t have to leave it for that period. Whatever is going to happen, it’s clearly going to take a while.
As shot by Cathal Watters, A DARK SONG is starkly beautiful from the first frame, and Gavin builds a sense of mystery and an accumulation of detail into the opening act that makes us anxious to learn what Solomon and Sophia will be getting up to. She’s gone through a specific diet and no-sex, no-alcohol regimen to prepare, and we discover that she’s asked others to help her before and been turned down. For his part, Solomon exhibits a certain reluctance to get involved, not so much out of fear but because he’s not sure if Sophia is truly ready for what awaits her. Once he’s sealed them inside the house with a ring of salt that must not be crossed, and the process begins, it’s clear why he was so concerned.
Further particulars of A DARK SONG should not be explicated here, as part of what makes the movie so gripping is the ongoing revelation of just how far Sophia will go at Solomon’s hands to have her dark desire fulfilled, and what motivates her. There’s also a fascination in the specifics of Solomon’s rites; the movie gives the impression of being very thoroughly researched, whether all his practices are real or not. What is clear is that Sophia is suffering deep emotional damage that has led her to this point; she has spent time in a psychiatric ward, and there’s a revelation at the halfway point that throws her situation into new, horrifying relief. And Solomon, who knows plenty about the supernatural world (“Science describes the least of things,” he tells her), has not gone unaffected by his interactions with it, as is evident when he hides a bottle of scotch early on.
Oram is allowed some moments of arch humor as A DARK SONG continues, but for the most part, the movie is played deadly serious, telling an intensely personal tale of two people taking that time-honored trip into realms we were not meant to explore. The complexity of this particular venture sets Gavin’s movie far apart from others of its kind, giving it a different rhythm and an emphasis on anticipation and fraught interaction over traditional uncanny terror. Backed by Ray Harman’s imaginative and ominous score, the film builds to an unexpected payoff—one that’s not as typically “shocking” as those that cap off most occult dramas, but is no less resonant.