“A Dark Song” (2016) Directed by Liam Gavin. Starring Mark Huberman, Susan Loughnane and Steve Oram.A grieving woman hires an occultist to guide her in performing a dangerous ritual that will allow her to communicate with her murdered child.
In the opening scenes, a woman named Sophia Howard purchases a lovely stone manor house miles and miles from anywhere in the Welsh countryside. After securing the purchase and paying the realtor extra to finalize the paperwork without her, she travels several miles to a train station to meet occultist Joseph Solomon. He’s not what she or we expect. There’s no wizard cloak or grandiosity that typically marks practitioners of the Dark Arts. He’s just some low-key prosaic guy. For now.
Back at the house, he examines each room and listens to Sophia’s motivations for doing this. She tells him that she’s in love and wishes to ask celestial beings to grant her the attention of her beloved. He cautions her to never lie during the coming rituals, and to always have a pure drive behind her actions.
After searching the house and taking in Sophia’s words, Solomon refuses to be a part of it. Something is not right here, and he wants his money and a train ride back home. Reluctantly, Sophia drives him back. As his train is set to arrive, she tells him another lie. She says her son died from some ailment and that she wants to speak with him again. Solomon changes his mind and returns with her.
Back at the house, Sophia explains that she has spent the last 22 weeks purifying herself for this. No alcohol, not much food and no sex. He impresses upon her the dangers of their undertaking.
“This isn’t astral projection or runes. This is real stuff we’re playing with. Real angels, real demons.”
As Sophia prepares a shopping list for the next four months needed for the ritual to be completed, Solomon begins shivering through alcohol detox. He explains that this undertaking will be grueling and test both of them to their limits. Alone in her room, Sophia unfolds a photo of her young son.
At a grocery store, she is packing her many items into the car when she sees a strange white-haired woman comforting a baby left lying on the ground in an infant car seat. Before she can move closer, she’s interrupted by her worried younger sister. They do lunch, and Victoria Howard lays out her concerns. She wants Sophia to consider checking into a psychiatric hospital after all this talk of godless black magic rituals. Or at the very least, come home with Victoria and be an aunt to her niece and nephew. Sophia balks and says Victoria could never understand her pain, what with her two healthy children at home.
Solomon lights a small campfire on the lawn and when Sophia returns, she joins him. He reiterates the need for absolute honesty in the trials to come.
In the morning after, Sophia is instructed to go on a walk through the mountains surrounding the property. She finds a decomposing dog as Solomon begins salting the property, creating a seal around the home. Once she’s back inside and the salt line is completed, neither of them can leave until the ritual is complete. She agrees, and he seals them in.
The following dawn, gone is quiet Solomon. His whole demeanor changes. He pours freezing water over Sophia’s sleeping head to wake her up as he shouts at her coldly. In an upstairs room, he has drawn an elaborate and rather beautiful diagram of six circles on the floor. They represent the cosmic phases Sophia will have to pass through to obtain an audience with angels and possibly her son.
“Well, we’ll be invoking the Angel at every circle and each time we move on, it will grow more powerful. This world will merge with other worlds. Others will hear.”
Each room of the second floor has been transformed into a different discipline that must be passed through before Sophia can have what she wants. She must sit for 3 days each in a tightly drawn diagram on the wood floors of multiple rooms. In the circles, Sophia prays, meditates and urinates. (No bathroom breaks in this ritual.) She has frigid water poured over her head, drinks a wine glass filled with Solomon’s blood, but refuses to go through with the ceremony of forgiveness. She cannot forgive. Solomon places a stone before her as she sits Indian style in the circle.
“For the next two days, I’m going to unshackle the house from the world. You mustn’t leave this circle. No food, no water. Focus on the stone. Fall into it. Discover it.”
Whenever someone says they’re going to unshackle something from reality, I get excited. Like, Doctor Strange excited. But is this shared madness or actual magic? Is Solomon a predator feeding on Sophia’s grief and pain? They bond and laugh, he paints letterforms and symbols on her back and demands that she perform in a ritual sex rite that has a surprising outcome.
Nothing ultimately comes of their efforts, which leaves Sophia furious.
She almost quits the whole ceremony. Solomon tells her that if she crosses the salt seal outside the house they’ll be trapped forever in an unending loop. Sophia undergoes the blood drinking and freezing water again. Flower petals rain down on her head from nowhere as she prays.
It’s another failure. Her frustration grows as it doesn’t work again. Solomon thinks that the ritual is failing because Sophia is lying about her true intentions and reasons for wanting to go through with this. In a moment of desperation, she finally comes clean with the brutal truth.
To go further with spoilers would be unkind.
As horror fans, we’ve all seen characters knowingly or unwittingly make contact with the mysterious Other Side. Typically, this happens with unrealistic ease; buy a hideous doll for your kid or read an incantation from a book you found in the basement, and pretty soon you’re neck deep in ghosts. What we haven’t seen before is the choice Sophia makes to go the distance through grueling pre-ritual fasting, torture, discomfort and a near death experience. Breaking through the Veil of our tangible reality, knocking on the door of a boundless cosmic realm and having faith enough to be humbled before an invisible entity is not easy at all.
These aren’t matters to be taken lightly, and for once they aren’t treated as such.
“A Dark Song” belongs to many genres, and the denouement is fairly unexpected. It’s a gorgeous, transcendent moment of character growth and mystical happenings that caps the narrative beautifully. I’ve read that the film is being considered one of the finest recent horror offerings, and that’s because it strongly builds two very flawed human characters amidst an atmosphere of supernatural evil and good. It’s a wonderfully intelligent horror film well worth your time.