Review: A Dark Song (2016)

There is some really wonderful horror cinema coming out of Ireland at the moment, and it’s so pleasing to see genre works getting support from its film board. From Isolation through Wake Wood, The Canal, Citadel and Without Name, the range of horror filmmaking coming from Ireland is truly impressive. I think easily my favourite of this recent wave of films from the Emerald Isle is, appropriately, the Irish-Welsh co-production A Dark Song, a searing feature debut from writer-director Liam Gavin. Taking what might be the ritualistic set-piece from a number of different sub-genres and expanding it to be the main focus of the film, A Dark Song is an incredible meditation on life, death, morality and human nature.

An effective two-hander, the film follows Sophia (Catherine Walker), a woman who desperately wants to connect with the spirit of her son. The only man seemingly willing to indulge her desperation is Joseph (Steve Oram), a bitter and broken occultist who has the necessary knowledge to perform the ritual with Sophia. Renting an isolated house in rural Wales, the embattled pair risk their souls performing an arduous ritual to contact the dead.

The performances from Walker and Oram are absolutely vital to ensuring A Dark Song is never anything less than engrossing and compelling viewing. Walker brings a real sense of quiet rage to Sophia that slowly unravels as the film goes on, while Oram manages to make the unlikeable – and in some instances downright hateful – Joseph surprisingly sympathetic. There’s credit there, too, to Gavin’s screenplay, which manages to balance the immense detail of the ritual itself with the building and development of both characters. Despite long sequences of ritual or character navel-gazing, there’s actually never an opportunity for boredom to seep in, and its credit to the performances that the characters’ frustrations at the duration of the ritual is effectively portrayed. For us, watching the ritual unfold is wholly engrossing but the different frustrations we feel from both characters combines to provide a sense of unease that only increases as their ritual continues. The film gathers pace as the characters’ tempers flare and certain secrets and lies begin to emerge, and it all leads to an intensely stunning climax.

The film also looks magnificent, making the absolute most of its remote location. Between the design of this and of last year’s The Passing, cloudy Wales has never looked so beautiful or so foreboding. Likewise, the way the ritualistic elements have been shot make them seem inviting despite their danger – and the intimacy the two characters are forced to share makes for an added sense of almost alluring claustrophobia. The sense of place in the film is very strong, and for me that can be a very important element to a successful horror film, and A Dark Song is very successful at being frightening and frankly, it’s not often a modern horror film really manages that. Through its setting, its narrative, nifty direction and yes, things going bump in the night, a myriad scares are all present and correct, and they all sit neatly together.

A Dark Song is a horror film that deserves seeking out and watching loud, with the lights off. It really marks out Liam Gavin as a filmmaker to watch, and I can only hope that he’ll continue to turn his hand to horror films. A Dark Song gets under your skin and manages to stay there, long after the credits roll.

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