(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in June 2020)
It may seem somewhat odd to read a review of a four-year-old film but as it didn’t pick up much of an audience first time round - and it’s now to be found lurking on the magical carousel on Amazon Prime - I thought it worthy of the attention of the fine tasted horror aficionados who frequent Ginger Nuts of Horror. Much like The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Wake Wood, it’s a film probably best discovered by being stumbled upon by accident. I shall attempt my level best to keep this review as spoiler free as possible.
National treasure Steve Oram (Kill List, Sightseers, The Canal) plays Joseph Solomon. Solomon is an occultist, a shaman, a magus – but he’s a far cry from your Doctor Strange “By the Omniscience of the Ancient One!” type. Instead, Solomon is just a bloke who decided to pick up a battered copy of Ars Notoria instead of Loaded back in his teens, a guy who’d rather have attended the occasional ritual magick ceremony than watch Leicester City play at Filbert Street. He’s a track-suited John Constantine.
Solomon is a damaged human being, whether that be from his dabbling with the occult, or his alcoholism. His magical services are being paid for by the equally broken Sophia (played by Catherine Walker), grieving and bitter at the death of her only child. She’s rented a remote house in Wales and has entrusted Solomon to lead her in an arduous rite from the Book of Abramelin, a month long ritual to summon a Guardian Angel in order that Sophia can speak with her dead offspring. A Dark Song is as much character study as horror, a tale of two disparate personalities –equally lost souls forced to endure each other as much as the gruelling elements of the ritual. Despite the occasional glorious exterior shot of the surrounding Irish countryside pretending to be Welsh, the house is claustrophobic and has them both voluntarily trapped within its confines – in some ways, this is an ideal film for the lockdown we found ourselves in. Solomon talks Sophia (and therefore, us too) through the preparations for the ritual. They are elaborate. Any doubts that Solomon is a con-artist and charlatan out to con Sophia are quickly dispelled. The magic here is real. It is demanding, it is complicated, and it requires resilience and sacrifice. The territory they are preparing to enter is dangerous, and it is a journey not to be undertaken lightly. As Solomon explains to Sophia, “This world will be merged with other worlds, and others will hear.”
“I’m going to get your killers, I’m going to get them.” “They’re not my killers. I’m just some cunt using your sons voice to make you afraid.” “I know.” A Dark Song, 2016
As a related aside, I’m an absolute sucker for films that take themselves seriously. As an eager overly excitable six-year-old, it was the lasers and the flying spaceships in Star Wars that excited me and held my attention. As an adult, I can appreciate that the universe looks used and lived in, and that space travel isn’t about flashy gleaming aerodynamic ships and silver space suits – it’s about nuts and bolts and heat-scorched paintwork and functional yet uncomfortable outfits. In a recent re-watch of Return of the Jedi, my attention was drawn to the Alliance helmets they wear on Endor. Some are imperfect fits, and they’re all scratched and battle worn. This isn’t super space soldier armour™ but mass-produced stuff that’s been dragged out of a rebel storage crate – or more likely, taken from the head of a previously living Rebel. I can buy the mysticism of The Force because the rest of the film feels real enough. Alien works because the Nostromo feels like a real place, and the crew feel like real flawed people. They’re not Dan Dare and Digby – these ladies and gents are under-paid and overly-pressured workers wondering where their next bonus is coming from. Solomon describes some of the magical rituals and preparations in A Dark Song in such matter-of-fact terms he may as well be reading from an Argos catalogue. There are instructions that must be followed, and you believe every word that spills from his lips. Magic isn’t about wands and hand-waving and Abracadabra – the complex and precise incantations are a programming language for reality – you just need to know how to use them and know the risks. I was reminded of the recent Grant Morrison 2010 documentary Talking with Gods. For those of you not in the know, Grant Morrison is a Scottish comics writer who was nabbed by the Americans as part of the British Invasion of the late eighties (which also involved Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman) – I wax lyrical about one of Grant’s finest works at https://gingernutsofhorror.com/features/biff-pow-take-that-cthulhu-of-superheroes-and-elder-gods-david-court. In it, Grant talks about his own experiences with magic. I’m a lapsed Christian now fully committed to atheism, and, despite the fact I write of angels and demons, don’t believe in them or pretty much anything supernatural. However, to hear Grant talk, for the duration of that man talking about it, I am utterly convinced of the genuine nature of magic. He is coherent, authentic, and utterly, utterly convincing. The architecture of A Dark Song – the dark vein that pulses in every piece of scenery, body language and every line of dialogue – is as convincing and genuine as that.
Liam Gavin’s film is terrific. It falters a little in the last act as it lapses slightly into traditional horror film territory but nails the landing with a moment of such breath-taking beauty and a boldness that genuinely surprised me. It’s a beautiful piece of work featuring two actors at the very top of their game. It’s a film ultimately about catharsis and redemption - of a sort - and is quite, quite unique. Films confined to a single location for budgetary purposes are ten-a-penny, but this is proof that that needn’t be a hinderance to excellent – and smart - filmmaking. As an experience, it’s appropriately magical.