VOD Review: A Dark Song.
This occult horror film from Ireland is a powerful slow burn experience.
Continuing our look at Irish cinema, I opted to check out a more recent example of the craft. A product of the Irish Film Board, A Dark Song made waves at several film festivals two years ago. For his first feature film, director Liam Gavin really goes for the gusto. A Dark Song is a horror thriller that is both restrained and ferociously large. Concerned with life and death, darkness and light, angels and demons, the film exists simultaneously at the end of two extremes. Gavin captures this struggle with excellent direction, making an experience that really inhabits that ethos.
A Dark Song (2016).
Sophia (Catherine Walker) seeks out Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) an occultist practitioner. Her young son was murdered, and the police could do nothing to bring the killers to justice. Sophia hopes to complete a grueling occult ritual with Joseph’s help, one that promises both of them the chance to ask mystical powers for a favor, if they can survive the ordeal.
Light and Dark, Big and Small.
This film is several films at once: a ghost story, a revenge story, a tale of grieving, and a psychological horror story. Much of the story telling is done with small, subtle movements. For the first two thirds of the movie, A Dark Song feels like a Victorian ghost story, with all of the conventions that go along with that genre. We don’t get much blood or nasty monsters, just subtle chills like unexplained noises, odd items out of place, and the precarious psychological balance between the supernatural and self-delusion.
The final third of the film is a Lovecraftian gothic horror, red in tooth and filled with grotesque images. It’s the polar opposite of the Victorian horror story, and yet Gavin pulls off both styles admirably.
I loved everything about Liam Gavin’s direction of this film. The camera work moves deftly between expansiveness, with panoramic shots of nearly static landscapes, and minimalist details. It creates a sense of alienation and intimacy at the same time.
The two leads perform a similar dance, allowing the audience (and each other) into a close psychological distance, only to push us away again. Steve Oram’s character is literally a repellant person, and Catherine Walker is forced to approach him due to their enforced seclusion during the long ritual. Sophia constantly hides her intentions, so that when we think we’ve gotten inside her mental barrier, there’s another layer to the labyrinth we have to traverse.
There’s a tremendous force of gravity at the center of the film, and the camera and the characters are slowly being sucked into it, making bursts of effort away from it, but being inextricably drawn to the vortex nonetheless. As an viewer, you feel this tension of being repelled, but drawn in as well.
I’ve rarely seen a film, let alone a small budget horror film, that completely dedicates itself to playing two extremes. It manages to turn its weaknesses into strengths at every turn. I was initially put off by the deliberately slow pacing. As the narrative evolved, I saw the storytelling and emotional need for the slow burn pace. The characters, especially Solomon, were likewise off-putting, but the story wouldn’t have functioned with them being otherwise. Some viewers have objected from the hard turn from psychological ghost story to bloody demonic horror, but I felt it was the very catharsis the story had been setting you up for all along.
A Dark Song is Liam Gavin’s first feature film. It is a daring first attempt, one that wins most of the audacious bets it makes. The characters, pacing, and disturbing elements make it a hard movie to like. The dedication to theme, artistic craftsmanship, and fine performances make it an easy film to love.