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Octavio Ramos Jr. is a lifelong fan of all things horror. In his teens, he began to write reviews of horror movies. Since college, he has been writing fiction in the horror genre, as well as writing reviews and commentary on every facet of horror for magazines such as Video Vista, The Zone, Horrorshow, and Albuquerque Horror Examiner. Contact him for movie reviews and interviews at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Dark Song: A subtle but deep exploration of the supernatural, magic, and redemption that will impress both students and masters of the occult
By Octavio Ramos Jr.
Originally released in 2016, Ireland’s A Dark Song is the impressive debut by writer-director Liam Gavin, whose previous works have consisted of short films such as Day of Reckoning, Sunshower, and Jericho. Although driven by the supernatural, A Dark Song is a very human film, one that explores the desire to cultivate knowledge on one end and yet succumbs to the baser desires inherent in all humans, such as arousal, despondency, and of course vengeance. The movie works as brooding psychological horror, with an end sequence that attempts to evoke tension and terror only to twist things around and demonstrate the power of human redemption. Oddly for a movie about the eternal dead, the occult, and things demonic, this film is pro-religion, and although in this case there is a God and there are angels, A Dark Song demonstrates that all religions are somehow intertwined in magic. This is an interesting hypothesis, as most religions have continued to move toward the secular, perhaps in the process limiting arcane knowledge and the forbidden.
The film chronicles a months-long occult ritual set in a dilapidated mansion that occultists might find similar to Boleskine House, which itself is on the southeastern side of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Various occult rites are mixed together, although the principal source is the rite taken from The Book of Abramelin. The objective of this rite is to summon a guardian angel and from it secure a favor.
Serving as the focus and conduit for the ritual is Sophia Howard (well played by Catherine Walker), a bitter and despondent women who funds the ritual and hires an occult magician by the name of Joseph Solomon (an understated but compelling performance by Steve Oram), an arrogant, short-tempered, and loathsome example of a man. However, both have a vested interest in summoning the angel, as Howard wants someone to love her and Solomon seeks invisibility, which he describes as gaining “some quiet before the hell” (Solomon believes that most humans are damned anyway).
After making some preliminary preparations, Solomon quickly discovers that Howard is holding back. Her desire is a half-truth; what she really wants, she claims, is to talk one final time with her son, who died when he was but seven years of age. When she confesses, Solomon believes that they are ready to execute the rite. However, he tells Howard that once they begin they cannot stop because once forces are set in emotion they cannot simply be abandoned (tell that to Aleister Crowley, who did just that while at Boleskine House).
The duo then set about completing chores, which range from the mundane to the intricate. Rooms are secured for different components of the rite, which involve facets of numerology, magic circles, incantations in different languages, and so on. As the conduit, Howard is subjected to some physically demanding and sometimes painful rituals, with a dominating Solomon at one point using her as his muse so that he can masturbate (note the reference here to the Scarlet Woman, who figures in Thelema and Catholicism, among other beliefs). This is a particularly disgusting scene, but it is also important, as it demonstrates the humanness of the characters that underscores their magical prowess and dedication.
But once the couple has completed the rite in its entirety, only subtle acts of the supernatural take place. Frustrated, Howard lashes out at Solomon, who in turn accuses her of impairing the ritual by not being pure with respect to dedication and intent. It turns out that Solomon is correct. What Howard truly wants is vengeance against the teenagers who accidentally killed her son. It turns out that some teens took the boy from a daycare center and used him in a half-assed occult ritual that resulted in his death.
To make sure that the second go-round of the ritual is successful, Solomon performs a late-night ritual on Howard. At first, the sequence promises to be little more than a Baptism, but Solomon pushes the ritual even further, actually killing her on the third dunking. Solomon then pulls her out, reviving her with forced breaths and CPR. According to Solomon, she is now rebirthed and pure.
Angry at his abusive behavior, Howard later pushes Solomon while they are in the kitchen. Solomon falls onto a kitchen knife, and it falls onto Howard to treat the wound. It turns out the knife is dirty, and soon Solomon contracts an infection. Still, both continue with a second round of the rite, only this time horrible things begin to happen. Subsequently, Solomon seems to die from the infection, with Howard tormented by shadows of the dead who at one point trap her and cut off the ring finger from her left hand (get it?). Managing to escape the dead’s clutches, she stumbles into the mansion’s main room, where she comes face-to-face with her guardian angel. The favor she asks of this being: To learn the power to forgive. The angel’s response is subtle but wondrous—he smiles. One of the movie’s codas shows Howard setting the dead body of Solomon into a lake—it is the peace of death in an idyllic environment for him, as when the day of judgment comes he is damned. As for Howard, her fate is not as concrete, as she has embraced redemption and thus may be difficult to judge when the time comes at last.
In league with occult classics such as Night of the Demon (sans the monster at the end), The Wicker Man, and Rosemary’s Baby, A Dark Song supersedes these classics by offering a balanced exploration of good and evil, with the fulcrum of balance placed on knowledge. What’s fascinating about this idea is that the most basic of religious tales offer up this notion. For example, the story of Genesis in Christianity explores knowledge as either good or evil. What’s left out in this morality play is the idea that it’s how knowledge is used that creates the “weight” of good or evil. Many occultists have also explored this idea, with some formulating entire philosophies from such exploration and philosophical extrapolation.
There are many compelling scenes in this movie, but perhaps the best ones are the exchanges between the two characters when they are at rest. One effective sequence has Howard and Solomon discussing the nature of knowledge. Solomon notes that science only taps into the outermost layer of what it is to understand; it is religion and magic that exposes the deeper layers. The end goal of any explorer is knowledge, and to set limitations such as those inherent in science (reproducibility is a big one) is what keeps humans from going ever-deeper into the realm of the knowing.
Another fun sequence has to do with vivid and recurring dreams. Howard discusses her horrifying dream, one that will play a key role later in the film. But Solomon’s recurring vivid dream is that he owns a moped scooter, a hilarious notion that once again demonstrates that even occultists are at their core very much human. At the same time, the movie explores how even the best of us can be so inhumane, looking to the supernatural to satisfy baser emotions, such as revenge. It is this dichotomy that A Dark Song explores—even the film’s title addresses the beauty and ugliness of what it is to be a human being.
This movie is intentionally slow, ramping up during the final reel, and its balance between light and dark may offend those who prefer their horror all dark. However, those willing to understand how knowledge and humans interact will not find a more pristine exploration than what is on display in this amazing movie.