Last year I got married. We spent our honeymoon in England, sequestered in a remote cabin in the woods. The sort of place that, whilst surrounded by Arcadian nature and the relaxing seclusion that offers, is imbued with the taint of the old pagan ways. Naturally, of course, we spent the entire time watching rural-themed horror movies.
Sam, a friend of mine, recommended some films to me. My wife calls any film Sam recommends a ‘Sam film’: whilst the exact definition of such a film has never been provided, she includes the likes of brilliant trash such as Videodrome, Burial Ground, and Possession. One of the films Sam recommended to me was a 2016 independent Irish film called A Dark Song. I’d never heard of it, but was immediately intrigued when I discovered it was based upon an old occult text called The Book of Abramelin.
Abramelin’s book is a 15th Century grimoire of kabbalistic knowledge and magic. Translated in the 1800’s, the book became associated with the likes of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (sounds like a dogger’s club for posh people) and Aleister Crowley. Being loosely connected to the ‘wickedest man in the world’ (that’s Crowley not Sam) lends the film’s entire premise pedigree. Right off the bat you just know some of modern history’s notable people have tried these rituals.
A Dark Song concerns Sophia (Catherine Walker), a grieving woman who rents a house in rural Wales in order to carry out a months-long rite to contact her dead child. Aiding her in this undertaking is occultist, and first class arse, Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram). Solomon knows his stuff – which is just as well, being called Mr. Solomon. She’s cynical, heartbroken, and he’s brutally medieval, bitter.
The two spend months trapped in the house, and performing the rite, with Sophia hoping to speak with her dead child (and secretly desiring revenge) being the finishing line. But as the ritual progresses and nothing seems to happen, the relationship between the pair rapidly sours.
Everything about A Dark Song screams low budget. For a start, there are only the two characters on screen for the majority of the movie. This is fine, as the pair play their roles brilliantly and work well together. The other thing that gives away ADS’ indie breeding, is that nothing happens for 85% of the movie. It’s a bona-fide slow burn, slowly building up the tension and palpable sense of dread to an ending which is unambiguous in its use of the supernatural.
But that’s why I like it. ADS is confident in its story, characters, and actors that it rarely has to rely on flashy imagery. The only exception, perhaps, is the awesome depiction of an Angel at the very end. What starts as a creepy occult film set in a dilapidated manor house, slowly becomes an affecting film about love, loss, grief, faith, and the human condition. This is told mostly through the powerful interactions between the two protagonists.
It’s not a scary film. It’s not even a captivating film. You could even make the argument that A Dark Song is a horror film for people who don’t normally like horror films. There is the mood of the horror movie – gloomy house, foreboding welsh country, and the occasional disquieting noise – without the excessive gore and cathartic intensity.
But the film’s truth strength lies in the emphasis on ritual, warts and all. As it was with Tonight She Comes, ADS manages to capture the extensive detail and lore of the occult. The rite depicted here is one which requires immense mental, physical, and spiritual discipline. ‘Sit in this exact spot for 24 hours’, ‘eat this’, ‘don’t eat anything’, ‘piss yourself’, etc. It’s one confusing ordeal with endless gruelling steps. And ADS is better for it. All the major religions have lengthy difficult rituals designed to test one’s faith, so it makes sense the pagan ones would too.