Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Liam Gavin
Written by: Liam Gavin
Starring: Steve Oram, Catherine Walker, Mark Huberman, Susan Loughnane & Nathan Vos
I wasn’t aware of A DARK SONG’s existence before last month and I stumbled across this title while I was planning reviews for this year’s 31 Days of Horror. Apparently, this little indie Irish flick gained quite the grand critical reception on the festival circuit and garnered further praise when it hit VOD outlets from IFC Midnight in April. After watching the trailer and reading the brief plot synopsis, I was sold on covering it! While the film has a few flaws, A DARK SONG is a spooky, well-made, and (at points) frightening journey through black magic and emotional revelations. If you’re into less-is-more scares and dig on occult tales, then you’re likely to really dig this flick.
Sophia (Catherine Walker) is a woman on a mission. She’s bound and determined to speak with her deceased son and will give anything to make this seemingly impossible wish come true. Sophia is so desperate to make her dream a reality that she’s hired shady rough-around-the-edges shaman Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram). The mismatched pair of occultist and grieving mother begin a dangerous months-long ritual that will push them to their physical and mental breaking points. Soon, Sophia begins to suspect that Joseph may be a fraud who’s milking her desperation to his advantage. Either way, spooky shit begins happening around the isolated mansion that these characters have sealed themselves up in and tensions arise between them.
A DARK SONG isn’t for everybody, because this script is very much a slow-burner. For a majority of the screen time, the film also skirts the fine line between subtle psychological terror and low-key supernatural horror. There are seeds of distinct possibilities (laid out in early, rather blatant exposition) that hint this story could go either way. The supernatural aspect might be real or Sophia might be trapped with someone who’s taking brutally advantage of her. However, first-time director/screenwriter Liam Gavin packs in enough red herrings and clues to constantly keep viewers on their toes.
The film’s scares start off in subtle doses before steadily progressing throughout. Items going missing or simple noises around the house are enough to chill your blood, if only for a moment. Though the music is atmospheric and lends a lot to this film’s tone, it never feels out-of-place or overbearing. It’s also worth noting that Liam Gavin resists the urge to insert cheap jump scares or loud stingers…most of the time. When they do occasionally make their way into the mix, there’s always something legitimately frightening behind them.
Though there are briefly glimpsed supporting characters in the opening third, A DARK SONG is mainly a two-person show. In some ways, this film very much reminded me of William Friedkin’s underappreciated BUG in that this is about two increasingly on-edge characters. DARK SONG is aided by two strong central performances that bring its mismatched pair to life. Steve Oram (who’s no genre stranger as he took center stage in the darkly hilarious SIGHTSEERS and has popped up in other numerous smaller indie horror flicks) is hypnotizing as shaman Solomon. This character is meant to keep the audience uneasy and Oram plays him to perfection. The real show-stopper comes in Catherine Walker’s turn as Sophia, a protagonist who’s plagued by grief and has secrets that gradually shift the film’s plot as it progresses along.
My only major problems with A DARK SONG pop up during the final 10 minutes, which got a bit too over-the-top for my liking. I appreciated this film’s ending and overall ideas, which are satisfying for the most part. However, some of the effects and a blatant in-your-face approach suddenly become overbearing for no apparent reason. Things were so much scarier (and better) when the film relied on subtle touches and kept its frights mainly regulated to an ambiguous shadowy nature.
A DARK SONG would be one hell of a debut for any filmmaker, but it’s made even better by a genuinely unnerving plot and careful attention to detail. Things as seemingly insignificant as a missing toy, a flower on a rug, and a massive circle of salt help fuel this film’s subtle frights. The movie only begins to lose its bearings when the conclusion gets a little too over-the-top with somewhat corny special effects. However, strong writing, fantastic performances, and quietly terrifying scenes make A DARK SONG well worth a look for any genre fans who dig on potentially psychological/possibly supernatural slow-burns.