The atmosphere in A Dark Song is heavy. No matter whether we’re in the thick of the film’s religious rituals or in one of the moments of levity, for a time we’re not far from the feeling that something is about to go awfully wrong, or right in an awful way. It’s a small, low budget horror film that, when it works, is capable of getting under your skin.
Sophia (Catherine Walker) drafts in occult ritualist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to help her conduct rituals that will allow her to contact a dead relative. If they want the process to work, and to avoid potentially dark consequences, they’ll have to stay within the confines of the over-bearing isolated country house Sophia has rented for them to stay in. But the rituals are gruelling and, as Sophia struggles to bear the torment, the danger of what they’re doing imposes itself on their psychological wellbeing.
The mood of A Dark Song is its strongest asset. Debuting writer/director Liam Gavin uses the bleak surroundings, patient writing and Ray Harman’s discomforting score to create a feeling of dread that squeezes both the characters and the audience from the beginning of the film. The disorienting large house and creepy shots placing it in the middle of the country work to both instil a sense of isolation and to create the impression of a larger scale for a film that takes place almost entirely inside a single location.
All of the stuff that works about A Dark Song is present pretty much from the off. That leads to a great first half an hour or so, and another hour and ten minutes where it feels like the film has run out of tricks. It’s short on incident and fails to escalate. The film gets caught in a loop, where the same things keep happening to no greater, or rather diminishing, effect. They go to all this trouble to create this atmosphere and then can’t work out what to with it. Once it’s become clear that there will be no movement the tension dissipates and the lack of momentum becomes frustrating.
Even when things get a bit chaotic as the film reaches its conclusion nothing much actually happens. Scenes build up, characters start to move and it seems like we’re going somewhere only for it to abruptly stop. There are also a few visual missteps at the end of the film, but I didn’t feel invested by that point anyway.
A Dark Song features just two key cast members. Steve Oram’s Solomon is an all-knowing arrogant, unpleasant nerd; like a Twitter identity made flesh. This brash character is authentic, the subject of brilliant observation and the result of a really terrific performance. He’s informal in a way you wouldn’t expect from someone brought in to guide occult rituals in a spooky horror film, and his constant state of grumpy indignant exasperation is endearing. Once we’ve warmed to him, he commits a particularly repugnant act, one which gives a new context to him and makes the character even more interesting.
Sophia doesn’t work, though. The ritual is Sophia’s idea; she commits everything she has to it, and yet anytime she has to do anything she endlessly complains. It creates a great conflict between the two characters but it makes her a total drag to spend time with. She’s whining and reckless. We’re given information that makes her sympathetic but we’re not shown anything that would make us feel for her. I strongly disliked her, which is an odd response to feel towards someone who suffers what she does in A Dark Song.
The scenes that work best between the two characters are the ones that find the two engaged in a subtle battle to establish a power dynamic. It’s hard to shake that A Dark Song is a film that’s hampered by its lone supporting character being considerably more interesting than its lead.
There’s enough promise in the film to put director/writer Liam Gavin on your list of filmmakers to keep an eye on. But A Dark Song is only more frustrating for how good it is at times. They were onto something here and it got away from them.