I think it’s fair to say that I never saw a film quite like this.
I consider myself well-versed both in horror cinema and the occult, but this is the first time I saw a fairly accurate representation of a real, balls-to-the-walls ceremonial magic ritual, at least based on the Hermetic / Gnostic tradition. To say it’s well-researched is an understatement: I’d bet writer-director Liam Gavin knows this stuff by heart, and it shows in every scene.
This movie is about the ritual itself. It shows both the motivation behind it and its consequences, but nothing more. A woman, Sophia tries to deal with the loss of her child, and a reluctant occultist helps her to do a ritual which requires months of isolation, fasting and true commitment to all things terrifying. That’s the film. That’s it. And it’s glorious.
After watching it, I read several disappointed reviews. I think they were expecting some kind of traditional narrative with a more satisfying ending. I don’t agree, but I get it. You have to understand what’s going on in a magic ritual to appreciate every moment in this film, and you have to think in a more abstract way to see the narrative. Without delving into the details much, the film depicts the uncomfortable, dragged out, heightened struggle towards gnosis (true knowledge), and spares no time for an actual, traditionally constructed narrative. But this is not exactly true. The road to gnosis isn’t an exciting thing to watch, because it’s an internal process. But as things start to get weird in the movie, you have to pay attention. Everything that happens on screen can be translated to Sophia’s road to enlightenment, or rather, confronting herself with her true ways.
This is remarkable in many ways. I’ve read many reviews that describe the ending as disappointing, the movie as aimless, but the truth is far from it. Here, every frame, every sound and even the ending sequence is masterfully created to serve the film’s only purpose: to show the ritual with all of its pitfalls and ultimately, it’s relative success. But also, all this shows how Sophia makes peace with whatever happened to her child.
It’s not really fair to expect jump scares or overly exciting storytelling here, but Liam Gavin handles this subject very well. The tension is almost unbearable, the performances are really good (Catherine Walker’s portrayal is incredibly powerful, and Steve Oram certainly makes a lasting impression), and the whole thing is just very messy, uncertain, as a ritual should be. All the doubt, all the fears, all the confrontations feel very real, and this is presented with cold, staggeringly beautiful cinematography and harrowing sound design. The names of the characters (Sophia and Solomon) are cheeky Gnostic references, there’s tons of little details that made me excited.
A Dark Song is an occult masterpiece that might not find a mainstream success, but it’s clear to me that the director is nothing short of a visionary, and this should be obvious even to the average viewers. This is how you handle a low budget film, this is how you make the most of its simple premise. It’s unflinching in its presentation and it resembles no other film I know. Although it weirdly reminded me of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which is a wholly different movie, but similarly focused on an esoteric process of “getting there” through an insanely specific and meticulous dedication to a transcendental craft.
As for the horror aspect, I think it works as a good horror film too. There are hints of several influences, the overall tone and presentation strengthen the feeling of dread. I finished the movie around midnight, alone, which was suitable.
There is a small scene in this film, a moment when Sophia demands for something to happen. Right then, a black bird smashes into the window. “Synchronicity,” Solomon explains to her. Later, when I was thinking about this very scene in my bed, staring at the darkness above me, a sudden loud bang occurred outside of my apartment.
Seriously, this film works, and it works in wondrous ways. This is occultism at its purest form, and anybody who’s interested in its subject matter, should watch it and cherish it.