Year: 2017
Director(s): Liam Gavin
Writer(s): Liam Gavin
Region of Origin: Ireland, UK

Rating: Unrated
Color, 100 mins

Synopsis: A determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want. (Source)

Occult rituals are common place within the horror genre, but while most films relegate them to a single plot point or climax, director Liam Gavin builds his entire film around a single, arduous rite. In A Dark Song, the boundaries between life and death are more fragile than we think, and the price for toying with spiritual forces is heavy. Sharp and restrained, Gavin explores how much we’d be willing to give up in order to see a loved one again, finding tension through a minimal premise that offers no escape. Uninterested in fleeting, thrill-a-minute spooks, Gavin’s in it for the long run, patiently earning terror and really immersing us into the harrowing headspace of his characters. As his characters push the boundaries of the physical and spiritual for a chance to pierce the veil, stars Steve Oram and Catherine Walker give it their all, resulting in an unsettling tapestry of atmosphere and existential angst.

When we first meet Sophia (Catherine Walker), she’s buying a home out in Wales’ secluded countryside. Her needs are not the home’s comfort, but that it will abide by the specific requirements of a dark ritual, one that she hopes will allow her to hear the voice of her son, Jack, one last time. After deciding that the sequestered home is adequate, she enlists the help of an occultist named Joseph (Steve Oram), who is reluctant to help, doubting her commitment to the dangerous ritual and resolve to see it through. Eventually, Joseph agrees to help, but as they begin the lengthy ceremony, the two are tested mentally and spiritually, challenging their motivations and even a tenuous bond. Joseph submits Sophia to horrible tests, each more difficult than the last, and as strange occurrences begin to happen around the home, the two find themselves in over their heads.

As previously mentioned, Gavin’s film doesn’t play out like a typical ghost story or demonic thriller, and where the film really thrives is as a focused portrait of grief, guilt and even forgiveness. From moment to moment, each scene takes us deeper into Sophia’s heartbreak, slowly revealing the true nature of her son’s death and how its torn her apart from the inside. Though Gavin does deliver the requisite gore and even a few inspired moments of supernatural threat, this is a horror film that is more felt than seen, and its scariest moments come from the idea of personal sacrifice and the difficulty of moving on from tragedy. In that sense, the film illustrates the struggle of coping with the horrible things in life that are completely out of our control, and the redemption found in being able to let go. Ultimately, Gavin’s ability to manifest intangible fears into one harrowing character study is impressive, turning a generic trope into a piercing endurance test that hits hard with emotion and catharsis.

The film’s two stars provide a are powerful anchor to Gavin’s intense reflection of unsaid fears and ideas. By and large, this is Catherine Walker’s show, and its because of her that we’re drawn into the film’s labyrinth of dark themes. Walker gives us a woman who is broken and tortured, but doing her best to see things through. Ravaged by tragedy, she musters a strength that is relatable and understated, even though she fights to stay on her toes. As Joseph, Steve Oram is harder to read by design, but the actor makes him feel real and just as genuine. He’s much more guarded than Walker’s character, but we feel for him in similar ways, himself wanting more than what can be seen. Together, the two create most of the film’s tension, bringing it to life in ways that are raw and believable.

Adding to an already original take on the material, Gavin’s film ends on a subversive, graceful note, bound to be divisive but wholly satisfying in more ways than one. In the end, the subtext about coping with tragedy makes way for a film about being honest with ourselves, not burying pain, but pushing forward to confront it head on. A Dark Song isn’t a popcorn horror film and is better for it, evoking the spirit of deeper cuts akin to the suffocating dread of Winner’s The Sentinel or the emotional pull of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. As a debut, director Gavin Walker’s debut already feels mature, taking influences and shaping them into something new. Bottom line: those looking for more than surface spooks fill find a lot to hold on to in this eerie, resonant thriller.

SG