Director: Liam Gavin
Cast: Catherine Walker, Steve Oram
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There’s a security to be found in traditions, whether it’s a country rooting itself in history or a religion building respect through routines. Rituals are an important part of horror, too, a reassuringly familiar element of the genre that immediately set up your expectations of what’s to come. In the case of A Dark Song, though, you can lock those expectations firmly up in the basement: there’s nothing comforting about this ritual.
Where most films will skirt over exorcisms and other rites, in favour of the dramatic, demonic aftermath or the door-creaking build-up, A Dark Song dives head-first into the process of summoning a force from beyond the pale. Doing the summoning is Sophia (Catherine Walker), a mother who lost her son and is turning to a desperate last resort: the hope that she might speak to her guardian angel and request a favour. And so she hires Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), an occultist with experience of the afterlife and its associated rites.
The ritual is much longer and more arduous than even she expects, though, reaching beyond merely the living room of her remote country home to engulf the whole thing. A chamber piece that spans an entire estate, the all-encompassing nature of this reality-bending spell even extends to the runtime of the film: once started, we, like Sophia, have no way of escaping the incantation’s pull.
The resulting limbo is nerve-janglingly tense to experience, as director Liam Gavin (helped out by a spooky soundtrack) stuffs every inch of gloomy air with foreboding and uncertainty. Is the ritual working yet? Probably, reasons Joseph. Maybe they should move to stage two. Possibly try the third circle. Perhaps they should start it over again.
Steve Oram, who has impressed in everything from Sightseers to AAAAAAAAH!, is remarkable here – and remarkably disturbing – as he takes control of the situation and orders Sophia around with a barking, bristling manner. He spits rather than speaks, a demeanour that unsettles with its unspoken baggage of previous failures. Catherine Walker, meanwhile, is agonisingly earnest, pushing through each hardship with a resilience that hides its own secrets.
“It’s a journey. That’s a poor metaphor, but it will do for now,” explains Oram, with a convincing, intimidating down-to-earth expertise. We really do get a sense of miles travelled, despite them not being allowed to leave the building. As the duo’s uncomfortable, awkward aliance shifts and contorts, the push and pull of their power and rage becomes even creepier than the lingering threat of the underworld. Theirs is a prison of lines and boundaries, each one pushing Catherine into a role or process that must be obeyed, from spiritual cleansing to acts more distressingly physical. But strength can be emotional too, and Walker’s driven mother finds heart where we suspect the wise Solomon is unpure.
The result is a gripping, unrelenting, unique horror that finds fear in inner demons and catharsis in unseen transformation; a precisely drawn ritual that exorcises grief, overwhelms with claustrophobia, shocks with the ordinary and marvels at the impossible. You’ve never seen a haunted house movie like it.