FANTASTIC FEST 2016: A DARK SONG – The Grief and Burden of a Black Magic Woman

 

Fantastic Fest
Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world. They feature world, national and regional premieres of new, up-and-coming genre films. It is held each year at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. For more info, visit fantasticfest.com

Grief drives people to strange things. Horror is one of the biggest genres to mine this emotion for story and its effects on people, be it obsession and break down of both relationships and lives (Don’t Look Now), or inability to let go, leading to communion with those in the afterlife (Witchboard), or even in extreme cases, resurrection (Pet Sematary). The degree of horror in these types of films varies to an extent, and while A Dark Song will not be keeping you up late at night by throwing gore and disturbing imagery at you, its emotional punch is still impressive with a considered and grounded look at a mother’s sorrow over the loss of a child.

Sophia (Catherine Walker) hires occultist Joseph (Steve Oram), to help her perform a ritual that will allow her to speak to her dead son’s guardian angel, an act that will permit her one wish. Having already prepared herself for over a year, the pair shut themselves off from the world in a remote house with enough supplies to last over 8 months, the length of time the ritual may take. Risks greater than consumption by her own grief await if they fail or she does not follow specific instructions. As they become more immersed in the ceremony, Joseph becomes increasingly aware of her motives and finds that a communion with her dead son is not exactly what Sophia has in mind.

In any horror movie ritual there is a a price to pay for what is unleashed. It’s usually a sacrifice, or the brutal death of someone who is quickly dispatched by what is unleashed. In A Dark Song, that price is extracted before the ritual completes. This isn’t just a case of drawing a chalk circle and muttering a few incantations. As things progress, the house becomes shifted into other planes, and subtle and unnerving occurrences hint at their progress and the encroaching danger. The film examines the detailed process of invoking the dark arts unlike any other before: the preparation, the commitment, and the toll, both psychological and physical. There is a tangible sense of risk, that what’s being undertaken is in defiance of nature.

While the ritual itself offers structure to the film, it’s really about the journey. As things progress, truths are uncovered, feelings are shared, and stakes are raised. It’s the antagonistic relationship between the two protagonists that is often more interesting than the ritual itself. These are two very different people. Sophia has channeled her grief into a steely determination tinged with self-destruction, while Joseph is a man with a gift, just looking to earn some money. Catherine Walker does impressive work to craft such a distant character still able to elicit such sympathy while Steve Oram (Sightseers) veers from horny vagabond to Northern Yoda. His ambiguity and her mistrust feed into a fascinating dynamic where to succeed, and possibly even survive, they must work together.

Liam Gavin’s first film is one of the more impressive debut features in recent times, a haunting and complex piece of filmmaking. It feels like an education on black magic, well considered in ritualistic aspects, deftly woven around a relatable tale of grief. A Dark Song is carefully and patiently built, drawing you under its spell. It’s aided by a score from Ray Harman, a discordant affair that only underscores the ungodly acts. The film is equally adept at exploiting silence, which epitomizes its choice of restraint over excess, of mood over jump scares. A Dark Song feels difficult to tag as just a horror film; it’s more of an unburdening of guilt and grief. While bleak, it offers an ending that contrasts sharply. Some may find it jarring and out of place, but an equal number will find it cathartic.

As a horror film, A Dark Song doesn’t quite deliver, but as a meditation on grief, it’s very effective. It compares the minutiae of ritual with the fixation of aspects of grief. There’s no quick solution, it’s a process, a commitment, and often something you can’t do alone. Liam Gavin wrings an impressive amount of drama out of a relatively simple concept, using his characters and themes to layer depth. It’s a fine debut, one that shakes off the normal tropes of black magic and invests in something far more tangible and affecting.

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the author

Originally harkening from the British Isles, Jon was exiled to Texas back in 2007 to help conceal his identity as a love child of the Queen. Jon has both embraced and been embraced by the wonderful city of Austin, a place which has only further enhanced his interest in film. A regular at SXSW and Fantastic Fest, Jon is also a member of the Austin Film Critics Association and Online Film Critics Society. By day he is a researcher at UT Austin but he also has an involvement with (and deep appreciation for) the local brewing industry. In short, his passions are cinema, science, craft beer and writing about himself in the third person. Twitter: @Texas_Jon