'A Dark Song': Film Review | London Film Festival 2016

Courtesy of Samson Films
A spellbinding psycho-horror debut, despite its limited budget.

A grieving mother and a bullying occultist face their demons in this black magic thriller from first-time director Liam Gavin.

Black magic rituals have long been a regular fixture in horror movies, but few have tackled the subject with quite the same level of forensic detail as A Dark Song. Peppered with runic symbols, spooky spells and invocations to ancient gods, Irish writer-director Liam Gavin’s debut feature initially feels like a docudrama on occult rites, though it is ultimately more interested in the real-world horrors of grief and depression. Lightly woven with religious themes, this atmospheric two-hander was clearly made on a slender budget, but it succeeds in making a distinctly creepy chamber drama from familiar ingredients.

Screened last month at the London Film Festival, A Dark Song has many more stops booked on the genre-friendly fest circuit, starting with Denver this coming weekend. The presence of cult actor Steve Oram, best known for co-writing and co-starring in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, may give a minor boost to its niche appeal on big and small screen. XYZ have North American rights and will be handling U.S. sales at AFM later this week.

The setting is a ramshackle old house in the lonely, wind-scoured highlands of North Wales. Mentally fragile young mother Sophia (Catherine Walker) makes contact with gruff occult expert Joseph (Oram), offering him a hefty fee to perform a ritual that could put her in touch with her murdered son. A detoxing alcoholic with a grudge against humanity, Joseph is initially testy and dismissive, spurning Sophia’s offer after a fractious first meeting. But she persists, and these fellow damaged misfits make a pact to lock themselves inside the house for several months to work on the hard physical labor demanded by serious black magic. If their efforts are successful, Joseph cautions, they could summon “real angels, real demons.”

But A Dark Song is more concerned with psychological demons than the supernatural kind, and all the stronger for it. Cut off from the outside world in their remote rural retreat, Joseph and Sophia’s teacher-student relationship takes on an increasingly sadistic flavor which, perhaps inevitably, culminates in sexualized bullying. When all their candlelit rituals and blood-drinking spells fail to deliver results for months on end, each one blames the other and a bitter power struggle ensues.

Gavin keeps us guessing until the closing scenes. Even after the house begins to creak and slither with eerie apparitions, he drops teasing hints that the whole experiment could be a scam by Joseph, or even a hallucinatory vision inside Sophia’s unstable mind. When the nightmarish denouement eventually arrives, it feels less satisfying than the prickly human drama which preceded it. This is largely due to financial factors, as Gavin plainly lacks the visual effects budget to bring this hellish tableau vividly to life. But an agreeably audacious final twist comes out of the blue, elevating A Dark Song from pagan psycho-thriller to quasi-Biblical parable.

With its subtle allusions to creepy classics such as Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Gavin’s debut has aspirations beyond its reach. Even so, it is a classy effort throughout, from cinematographer Cathal Watters’ beautiful vistas of the rugged Welsh landscape to Ray Harman’s spare, brooding, dread-filled score. Oram’s typically sour, surly, slyly comic performance also grounds the plot in a grubby realism that serves its more fantastical elements well.

Venue: London Film Festival
Production companies: Samson Films, Tall Man Films
Cast: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker, Susan Loughnane
Director-screenwriter: Liam Gavin
Producers: David Collins, Cormac Fox, Tim Dennison
Cinematographer: Cathal Watters
Editor: Anna Maria O'Flanagan
Music: Ray Harman
Sales company: XYZ Films

Not rated, 99 minutes