http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=30770&reviewer=371

Dark Song, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/29/16 22:02:47

"Earns the supernatural like few horror movies do."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: Tales of the supernatural naturally tend to rely on a lot of hand-waving when it comes to details, both because their audiences often kind of want things to be able to come out of nowhere and because more detail will inevitably bump up against the audience's basic suspension of disbelief, because this stuff isn't real and each bit of explanation is a potential spot where the viewer no longer buys it. It's especially tricky when the movie needs an expert who can't really show his or her expertise beyond results, at least most of the time. That "A Dark Song" attempts to buck that trend, building a whole movie around the process and logic of working with the supernatural, would make it interesting even if it wasn't also a tense drama.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is not an expert on the supernatural herself, although she knows enough about what she plans to do to rent a house to certain specifications for a year in anticipation of the arrival of Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), a modern-day Gnostic mystic who has, he says, attempted the rituals she is requesting three times, succeeding once. Her quest to once again hear her dead child's voice will not be easy - it will likely at least require six months of total commitment where neither can leave the house, with lessons on the Kabbalah and repeated rites filling their time. Not exactly an exciting sabbatical in concept, its very nature meaning that each is sharing space with a stubborn, demanding housemate, but Solomon warns of dire consequences of either crosses the salt line drawn around the building's perimeter.

Writer/director Liam Gavin needn't go into a whole lot of detail where all the magical details are concerned, although he peppers the film with enough that the audience will recognize the various fragments as things which have power - symbolic shapes, numbers which have meaning in their interactions, blood sacrifices, abstinence which turns one's focus inward. How accurately this reflects actual Gnosticism, I don't have the expertise to say, but even if it doesn't, there's something to be said for making it a sort of folklore stew, not aligned with any specific religious tradition, because for the purposes of this movie, magic has to be hard, something that requires extensive study and concentration, rather than working as a short cut. To go through with this requires a sort of mania, not a moment of transcendent emotion.

The two main performers have no issues generating that sort of intensity. Catherine Walker excels as Sophia, using the period before the pair are actually sealed in the house to establish that this is a woman driven mad with grief and anger, especially in a couple of scenes with Susan Loughnane as her sister, so that he actually feeling in over her head, doubting herself, and struggling later on establishes just how frightening a commitment this is. She makes Sophia formidable, but keeps the guilt she feels visible at all times, and inserts human life into the moments when the various bits don't quite fit together.

Solomon doesn't have the same clear motivation; Steve Oram doesn't really play him as the type of top specialist who can pick, choose, and harangue his clients without concern for the repercussions. Instead, he's a deeply flawed man whose own particular obsessions are academic in nature, and this sort of introversion gives Oram and Gavin fascinating material to explore, as every moment when he initially seems just angry and unreasonable can connect to another displaying his thirst for knowledge, or consideration of how this personal thing affects the rituals. It's almost meta, in that he is perhaps over-aware of the symbolism of his actions, and Oram has an excellent handle on how to do this without making Solomon seem disconnected from reality or egotistical in the wrong way.

Given that the film covers months inside the house, there's an ebb and flow to how Walker and Oram work together; Gavin recognizes that their relationship will not be a straight line on a graph but something tending toward familiarity over time, though able to bounce back to abrasion and conflict at any moment. Gavin does a very nice job of using both the dabbling in dangerous forces and the more conventional drama of two people locked in a house together to keep tension going throughout the film but not quite ready to snowball until the appropriate time. It lets him keep on-screen mayhem and manifestation under tight control without the audience feeling short-changed, making the last scenes potentially something special, even if us rationalists can't help but advance the theory that the isolation could have driven folks mad.

On the other hand, this is very much a movie that feels like it has put in the time and effort necessary for the supernatural to intrude into reality, a feat that is much rarer than horror filmmakers would have us assume. Pair that with a couple of good, intense performances, and "A Dark Song" is one of the most interesting and unusual tales of the supernatural to come around in some time.

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