Hollywood really doesn’t have a lot of patience with magick and the occult. That’s not to say we don’t get a lot of shit thrown at us purporting to be tales of the supernatural, but that’s what they are in the end: shit. The nonsensical jumpscares of your Sinisters or your Insidiouses or your Conjurings (or, god forbid, your Paranormal Activities) are pointless excursions into the marketing mindset and the exploitation of a youthful audience who just doesn’t know any better. And those cheapest of cheap thrills have created a feedback loop where real horror finds itself shut out as too low-key, or too slow. If you didn’t care for The Witch because it was boring, then you’re part of the problem. There. I said it. Hollywood is all about the shortcuts and set-pieces. Which is why you have to go the fringes of filmmaking to get a more subtle, horrifying take on magick and the occult. Before this last decade, you probably had to go back to Alan Parker’s satanic-noir Angel Heart (1987) to get a good, solid film that took this subject matter seriously. And even it gave in to the desires of the marketplace without, however, sacrificing the authenticity of its story. Before that, we’re talking about going back to the early Seventies with films like Lucifer Rising (1972) by Kenneth Anger, Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain (1971), Robert Hardy’s original The Wicker Man (1973), or Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) from Piers Haggard. Before that, we had The Devil Rides Out (1968), directed by Hammer legend Terence Fisher and based on the occult novel by Dennis Wheatley, Night of the Demon (1957) by Jacques Tourneur, and The Blood of a Poet (1930) by Jean Cocteau. Outside of these films and maybe a few others, the occult is treated like melodrama. Sometimes we get something good from the approach, like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) by Roman Polanski or the original The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise from the classic novel by Shirley Jackson, or even Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions (1995) – the director’s cut, that is. It has only been within the last decade that we’ve really started to get interesting and serious explorations of the occult on film – and none of it has come from the establishment. Ben Wheatley nailed it with Kill List in 2011 and then again with A Field in England in 2013. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer also struck gold with Starry Eyes in 2014. And I’ve already mentioned 2015’s The Witch by Robert Eggers. Now we have Liam Gavin’s first feature film, A Dark Song, to add to the list, and it stands tall. Filmed in Ireland and Wales, A Dark Song isn’t the standard Irish/English folk occult like The Wicker Man or Kill List, this is straight-up, old school ritual magick inspired by, at least in name, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, which was translated by S.L. MacGregor Mathors in 1900, and served as a primary influence on Aleister Crowley. The story is simple enough. A grieving mother named Sophia (Catherine Walker) rents a house in the middle of nowhere, Wales, and hires a reluctant magician named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram – co-writer and co-star of Sightseers and writer/director of the bizarre Aaaaaaaah!) to conduct an intricate ritual that will summon a Guardian Angel who will grant them each a single wish. In other hands, this could turn into stereotypical jump scare fare as the demonic entities make their way into the house and torment our heroes. But this is not that sort of film. This is a serious, psychological portrait of two damaged individuals and for a large portion of the runtime, it’s hard to say whether or not something supernatural is even happening, or whether it’s an elaborate con job or whether it’s a slow descent into madness, or all of the above. Despite being the sympathetic lead, Walker’s Sophia is very quickly revealed to be someone keeping any number of secrets about both her past and her motivations. Does she really just need to hear her dead son’s voice one more time? And Oram is disturbingly believable as the dominating, and totally obnoxious magician who has tried this sort of summoning three times and failed twice. And that’s all the detail we get about that, so given his general demeanor, we are immediately forced to question whether he’s lying or not. The scenario is ripe for audience manipulation as if these two really are conducting, if not black magick, something in a gray area, tradition dictates that a single misstep could cost them both not just their lives, but their souls. So when Solomon is violently adamant that Sophia obeys his every command, it rings true. On the other hand… If he’s a manipulative con artist, Sophia is in grave danger from the very start. Thankfully, Gavin’s script situates us right in the middle, while Walker and Oram embody these characters, embracing their weaknesses as boldly as their strengths. With subtle meditations on guilt and repression comparable in part to Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant Don’t Look Now (1973), and with a finale that recalls the grounded nightmare of Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977), right up to an ending you probably won’t see coming, A Dark Song is an instant classic. It doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Cathal Watters is able to capture both the breathtaking Welsh landscapes and also make the shadowy interiors of the country house both expansive and claustrophobic simultaneously. This visual elegance, when combined with Ray Harman’s dark and minimalist soundscape, creates a sense of true otherworldly isolation. When the salt circle is sealed around the house, there is no exiting until the ritual has run its course. A Dark Song (2016)Paul's Rating5.0Overall ScoreReader Rating: (3 Votes)Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.