We’ve seen a million black magic rituals in movies over the years, but rarely have they been put together with so much care, attention and sheer bloody effort as the rite in writer-director Liam Gavin’s debut A Dark Song. Opening doors to the other side isn’t as simple as drawing lines on the floor and lighting a candle. Powerful forces require powerful sacrifices.
Catherine Walker (Dark Touch, Versailles) stars as Sophia Howard, who buys a house far from anywhere and hires miserable occultist Joseph Solomon (Sightseers’ Steve Oram) to perform a ritual for her. When she says she’s doing it for love, he dismisses her with a sneer, but when she admits that she’s trying to reach her dead child, he accepts the challenge.
However, the preparations will push Sophia to her limits of endurance and there’s no guarantee that it will even work.
Gavin shows an impressive confidence in allowing his film to build at its own pace. Once Sophia and Joseph have closed the doors to the house, things are in motion, but it’s an endurance test as much as anything.
Sophia has to subject herself to increasingly brutal and degrading treatment as the intensely unpleasant Joseph reminds her that this is a commitment she has made. Even as she despairs that nothing is happening, Gavin adds uncanny, eerie and ambiguous details. Something is coming…but what?
It’s almost entirely a two-hander and Walker and Oram are absolutely superb. The former channels Sophia’s grief and rage into a rich, bitter character who would rather take any gruesome alternative than contemplate forgiveness, while the latter revels in Joseph’s callous cruelty while keeping him human and interesting.
Although Gavin makes us wait for the horror elements, they are highly effective once they arrive. For these characters, getting what they want is not only uncertain, it is life threatening, but despite the chills and the nastiness, there’s a heart here too. A couple of the big moments towards the end don’t quite come off, but this is an excellent debut that is compelling, scary and affecting.