For obvious reasons, most horror movies make occult rituals seem relatively easy – you might have to be willing to sacrifice a virgin or drink goat-blood, but you get the magic reward you want pretty sharpish. Stephen Strange becomes Sorcerer Supreme in less time than it would take to get a mail-order divinity degree from a bogus diploma factory in Iowa. Even fooling around with a Hasbro product at a kid’s party can summon a malign spirit instantly. A major difference between the exorcisms in The Exorcist and its many follow-ups and the supposed authentic cases that inspire them is that ‘real-life’ exorcisms are more like a course of psychoanalysis than a tooth extraction … they can take weeks, months, years, with no guarantee of a successful outcome.
Writer-director Liam Gavin’s debut feature A Dark Song is a rare movie to give any sense of this – the simple set-up is that grieving mother Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) hires shirty occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to put her in touch with her dead son, which is the kind of thing that could be done in a trice in an episode of an Amicus horror movie (there’s a vague echo of the ‘Bobby’ episode of the TV movie Dead of Night) but here involves spending up to a year inside a rented mansion in Wales (not stepping over a salt boundary around the house) observing a strict diet, chalking symbols everywhere, performing almost incomprehensible tasks and surrendering entirely to the direction of her hired man. Joseph even tells her there’s a sex ritual involved and she is grimly prepared to go along with it, until he tells her this was a lie … presumably to impress on her the level of commitment required to achieve her aims, which (also in Amicus style) aren’t quite what she tells him they are, even though he has impressed on her the need for truthfulness.
The first hour of the film is almost all character stuff, with the two leads excellent as driven, not-exactly-likeable folk – Sophia is grim and bitter, Joseph is callous and antagonistic – who voluntarily stick together for a long period of time. Of course, this being a supernatural movie, the ritual does work after a fashion, and the house is invaded by demonic (and angelic) presences, who shuffle threateningly in shadows as Sophia gets near the end of her quest (Joseph is rather dropped from the film – he seems to be killed off, but even that’s not 100% clear) and finally confronts a giant, armoured figure who evokes the Castle of Otranto but is also an unusual vision of what a primal angel might be like.
A few stark, barren, beautiful landscape shots stress the claustrophobic confinement to what is actually a rambling old dark house, and Gavin has plainly paid a lot of attention to details of art direction inside the place – the black magic in the film might be high-class mumbo-jumbo, but it feels more real than the backwards Latin and robed chanting of most horror films on the subject.