A Dark Song (2016)
Written & Directed by Liam Gavin
Sophie has found the place, gathered the resources, and emptied her bank accounts for this moment. With the help occultist Joseph, she plans to perform a complex a Kabbalistic ritual, The Abramelin, to make contact with her dead son. Joseph wants to bail at first, but Sophie opens up to him, and he comes around. They lock themselves up in the vast country manor that Sophie has rented for the year and get to work. Once the ritual begins, they cannot step foot outside the salt circle around the home, or they risk being trapped there forever. As the two spend more and more time together, the balance of power goes back and forth. It eventually becomes apparent that Sophie has not shared the whole truth with Joseph, while Joseph is growing drunk on his dominance over Sophie.
While IT makes $350 million plus at the box office, working off the tried and true amusement park ride that is jumpscare horror in modern cinema, there are quieter, more horrific pictures that skirt under the radar of mainstream audiences. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Horror, if done correctly, can be a profoundly uncomfortable, disturbing, and upsetting experience. I would argue that if horror isn’t those three things, then it is some other film genre using horror tropes. IT is a coming of age, fantasy adventure that uses horror tropes (scary clown, haunted house, ancient curse) to tell its story. Having just read original director/screenwriter Cary Fukunaga’s first draft of the IT script, I can say the end product shed a lot of the pure horror elements for a film that was more comfortable, and the lesser for it.
It’s no mere chance that A Dark Song features two leads, one male, and one female. That embedded cultural power dynamics are there from the start. While we never learn anything in deep detail about Joseph’s life outside of the setting of the film, we do receive a very crucial bit of background. As part of the Abramelin, Joseph will get to ask and have a request granted by the powers beyond this world. He tells Sophie he will ask for invisibility, specifically to be able to exist somewhere in the world free of interaction with other people, until the time of his death. Joseph is also an alcoholic who swings back and forth with his substance abuse throughout the film. There are moments where he is pushing Sophie to go through an intense cleansing ritual and the question of if this is a part of the ceremony or is Joseph getting his sadistic rocks off while drunk comes up.
Catherine Walker, who plays Sophie, is the core of the film though. The entire bleak affair is seen through her perspective, while still keeping the audience at a distance from her darkest secret. Walker is aged 42 and is an excellent example of how horror in the mainstream has become youth-marketed. IT, Happy Death Day, Annabelle: Creation, and so on typical feature young protagonists with older characters relegated to background supporting parts. A Dark Song could never work with young protagonists. Sophie’s weathered and continuously angry demeanor is something that comes with the bitterness of life viewed as unfair. At one point in the ritual, Joseph explains that she must go through a cleansing of forgiveness, and Sophie is adamant that she doesn’t forgive anyone. To compensate, Joseph cuts his arm and drains his blood into a glass for her to consume. There is the ever-present question of “Is this an actual part of the ritual?” but more importantly is the anguished guile with which Sophie guzzles down the congealing blood. She is disgusted at the act, but even more repulsed by the action of forgiving people in her past who transgressed against her.
Where A Dark Song goes and how it concludes genuinely shocked me. I suspect, most audiences are not going to be able to figure out how Sophie’s story will end. The film is an incredibly slow burn, and would never do well in a wide release situation where audiences have become so used and expectant of repetitive structures and themes. A Dark Song has a very clinical approach to its use of the occult which becomes a point of fascination for me outside of the film. But the compelling main character and her dark journey is the hook that will keep you watching. The pacing is slow, but the payoff is stunning.