If you hear the words occult, ritual and demon associated with a film billed as a horror, you would understandably harbour certain genre expectations. A few pentangles, a reasonable amount of nudity (demons always seem to like naked disciples, don’t they?), and plenty of blood-letting all thrown together under a maelstrom of indecipherable chanting and screaming. But for his debut feature, Liam Gavin has stripped the occult theme right back to create a bleakly stylish, slow-burning drama that tentatively creeps up on you from behind, before burrowing deep under your skin.
As a premise, A Dark Song is simple. Sophia (Catherine Walker) is deeply troubled by something in her past; so troubled in fact that she feels compelled to seek the assistance of rough-and-ready occultist Joseph (Steve Oram). Isolated manor house rented, the pair seal themselves in for months of ritualistic acts that will hopefully allow Sophia to contact her guardian angel, and pose a single, important question. Only, of course, it just isn’t that straightforward and despite the insistence of Joseph that they must always be truthful with each other, there are many secrets to be revealed.
This is a film concerned entirely with performance and mood. Walker is darkly enchanting as the vulnerable, yet determined, Sophia who hopes blindly that the rituals will work, despite her growing reticence. She is prepared to suffer all manner of indignities and punishments meted out by the arrogant, bullying Joseph in order to reach her goal. In those moments, Oram edges towards psychopathic, as his obsession with the subject often overshadows his abilities, as Joseph creeps closer and closer to unlikeable and unsympathetic. Both Walker and Oram are impressive, but it is the direction from Gavin that draws these performances, and sets the tone around them.
A Dark Song belies Gavin’s inexperience as a feature director, as he expertly draws the audience in to the nightmare of his protagonist’s situation, while teasing reveals so delicately as to be barely noticeable. Instead of frustrating, this lack of knowledge keeps you beguiled by intrigue as the foremost emotion you experience is suspicion of the two leads. Dark corners exist everywhere, and you strain to see in to the shadows hoping they will give up their secrets. When Gavin finally does begin to deliver the payoffs, they are horrific, wildly unexpected, and potentially divisive. It is a finale that may prove unsatisfactory for many, but it is one that you will remember, and even when you’re presented with all the information you can’t help suspecting there is more to the story.
When so many first-time filmmakers strive for the shocking and bluntly scary to make their mark, Gavin has opted for restraint and reflection. A Dark Song is uncomfortably atmospheric, a film that sucks the warmth from a room leaving you chilled and on edge. It is a dark, artful film set against an even darker canvass, and one that is worth seeking out from a director to watch.
A DARK SONG / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: LIAM GAVIN / STARRING: STEVE ORAM, CATHERINE WALKER, SUSAN LOUGHNANE / RELEASE DATE: APRIL 7TH