Ireland hasn’t had a good history with producing horror films. Which is odd given our rich folklore, filled with countless otherworldly creatures including small wizened beings, that may be dead, alive, or somewhere in between, that steal away children. Basically they’re just like Madonna. From the abysmal Shrooms (2004) to the soul shattering awfulness that was Rawhead Rex (1986) we haven’t had a great run with the horrors. Horror itself is something of the trailer trash of Hollywood, be they supernatural or secular in setting. How many times have we seen one that comes with the footnote “that was good…for a horror”? So, can A Dark Song (2016), a supernatural horror film made in Ireland break the curse of poor Irish Horror Films? Can a film about a supposedly real arcane rite that was once performed by the infamous Aleister Crowley prove to be a good film, not merely a good horror?
Yeah, as it happens.
Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker), a mother grieving over the murder of her young son, is recently released from a psychiatric hospital. However, instead of continuing with the grief counselling she decides to rent a large manor house in the wilds of North Wales and perform the complex Kabbalistic rite described in the Abramelin to commune with ones Guardian Angel.
As you do.
Aided by the sweary Occult drill sergeant Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), Sophia goes through months of meditation, purification, and ritual in isolation. As time drags on and Sophia gets impatient, Solomon begins to suspect that Sophia hasn’t told him the whole story, because you know what people are like when they try to summon their Guardian Angel using arcane ritualistic magick; they’re always holding something back. But they can’t leave the house until the ritual is complete; failure will cost more than both their lives, it will cost them their souls as well because to get to Heaven, they’ve got to go through Hell first.
You’ve got to go into films as neutral as possible but, dear God, A Dark Song was making it hard for me. The premise/blurb about dark magic, the poster image of a figure in shadow framed by an orange glowing door, the grey washout pallet, these were triggering warning alarms that I was about to watch a dull, by the numbers affair where the idea of wasting time on it was going be more terrifying that the actual movie. So A Dark Song actually took me aback.
The story is more than just a The Exorcist (1973) style rip off. If anything its more The Exorcist without any exorcism in it. A high-concept occult horror that also has a degree of realism; magic is less the light switch and more the bonfire; it takes time, resources and if you mess up the results are terrifyingly dangerous. And like all the best horrors you do question if this is actually something supernatural or just happening in the main characters head. It’s an old house in the middle of nowhere, noises are prone to happen and seem lounder against the silence. Sophia has just got out of a psychiatric hospital after her son’s murder and Solomon forces her to go without sleep, food and water during the course of the ritual. Is any of the magic actually happening or is it just the product of a hurt and exhausted mind? My money is on it actually being supernatural but questions like this help make a good horror, not jump scares, not gorewhore fandom. Getting you into uncertain territory and creating dread, in this case by making you question whether what you see is real or just a delusion, that makes a good horror.
But as we know, no movie is perfect, and A Dark Song does have its issues. First off, Steve Oram’s portrayal of Solomon. It’s less an occultist angry at Sophia’s commitment to what they’re doing and more “SOLOMON SMASH!” as his short temper flips on a coin like a pub dog. It’s not that his temper just flips, it does it at break neck speed from rage to peaceful and back again that he should have ended up with whiplash.
And without giving anything away, for a film that utilises practical effects the sudden inclusion of CGI is something that marred an otherwise great film, like drawing a Dali tash on the Mona Lisa.
There are some nice little nods for aficionados of the esoteric; Sophia is also the name of Wisdom in Gnosticism and Christian Mysticism, which given her Catholic background and personal quest for knowledge makes sense while Solomon takes his name after King Solomon who was said to be able to capture and control demons. They left that bit out of R.E.
With an Irish cast, Irish crew and Irish film locations, A Dark Song has broken the curse of bad Irish horror films!
What do you mean writer/director Liam Gavin is Welsh?
Dir: Liam Gavin
Scr: Liam Gavin
Cast: Catherine Walker, Steve Oram
Prd: David Collins, Tim Dennison, Cormac Fox
DOP: Cathal Watters
Music: Ray Harman
Runtime: 99 minutes
A Dark Song is out on DVD from the 7th August 2017.