A Dark Song Review [Fantastic Fest 2016]
While some occult horror films hastily summon demons and creatures, other religiously-tinged enchanters like A Dark Song dabble more in moral challenges and heavenly perversion. Liam Gavin’s satanic ritual invests in the not-so-calm before any heretic storm, and the mindset of someone who’s willing to embrace help from dark realms. Don’t worry, a righteous, pound-for-pound payoff awaits patient fans come Gavin’s hellbound culmination, but we’re pulled in equally by ritualistic offerings and ominous warnings that needen’t rely on monsters and mayhem. Once Gavin’s main characters seal themselves inside what could be a devilish tomb, prime cultist practices lead to a bewitching story sealed with a bloody kiss – genre love without a Ouija board or expected preachiness.
Catherine Walker stars as Sophia Howard, a woman with a hopeful wish. She contacts occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) hoping that he can provide closure in the form of a world-crossing Hail Mary. Sophia says her intentions are out of love, and that she wants Joseph to put her in contact with a ghost from her past. Joseph agrees, and so begins a six month ritual that will drag them both through hell and back (maybe more than a figure of speech?). Circles are drawn, entire days are spent awake and sacrifices are made, but Sophia questions if any progress is being made. Is Joseph a bullshit artist, or will he unite Sophia with powers most humans will never even fathom?
A Dark Song goes the route of enchantments and white, chalky circles, forgoing cauldrons of bubbly neon-lit liquids or more campier sensibilities. Joseph Solomon is just your everyday black-magic-believer (with added social strangeness), who dons a dark blue/purplish robe for only a short stretch of ceremonial establishment. Tension is grounded and satanism isn’t projected in a goth-heavy, black-lipstick kind of light that some more kitschy genre films try to exploit. For nine-tenths of Gavin’s ethereal manipulation, we become keen to Sophia’s fears that Joseph is just getting off on degrading her, and taking advantage of her vulnerable predicament. Then worlds shift, and everything goes all satanic panic really f*#king quick.
The relationship between Steve Oram and Catherine Walker is one that’s always in question, which resembles the best in nervousness, anxiety and mistrust. Walker is putting her life in the hands of a man who believes – and testifies in the name of – an underworld many of us fear, which is not lost on the trapped woman. Back and forth, both characters ride an emotional seesaw that bounces between highs in the form of signs (dead black bird/laid petals) and lows whenever Sophia questions Joseph’s credibility. Oram’s furious outbursts keep an air of unpredictability as far as tension is concerned, as Joseph whips plates around and forces violence through passionate, curse-ridden pleas that test Sophia’s true intentions. In order to achieve holy completion, the newly-acquainted duo must have a pure, trustworthy relationship – a bond Sophia constantly breaks, as Gavin incessantly disrupts normalcy with red-hot acts of necessary aggression.
For all my talk about Gavin’s grounded sensibilities and human skepticism, his fuse-burning finale explodes with elements of dark fantasy, invasive horror and terrorizing folklore by way of unexpected resolutions. Big, thematic promises are teased by Joseph and Sophia, and Gavin rightfully delivers a payoff among payoffs. A Dark Song constantly evolves through Sophia’s reluctant confession of truths, balancing the light of good and blindness of evil. Visual representation plays a key role in asserting Joseph’s understanding of malevolent powers that shouldn’t be tampered with, but physical examples become even more important once Sophia’s desires are laid plainly. Vengeance tempts while forgiveness evades, as Gavin revels in manipulating the unknown to explore our own reactions to insurmountable inner grief.
You’d never know A Dark Song is Liam Gavin’s first feature based on quality, which is high praise in the horror genre. Early plot advancement contains psychological “sex magic,” blood rituals and continued unease in order to work towards a biblical, physically-driven ending that covers all the gritty genre nastiness Gavin initially sidesteps. Foundations are built on performance and painful absolution, until Gavin unleashes a beastly third-act that evolves from well-written religious appropriation. When you toy with malevolent forces, you’re bound to get burned – but we’ve seen that story so many times before. A Dark Song digs its claws in and never lets go, finding horror in rituals, personal reflection and burning black-magic sensations. It’s dreadfully inviting from start to finish, with an almighty climax at just the right time.
A Dark Song is a compelling composition of occult melodies that hits all the right genre highs.