A successful horror movie needs the courage of its convictions. That is not to say it needs to be gory or prurient, but rather that it needs an auteur at its helm who is willing to go all out when the vital moment comes. A horror audience knows better than any other type of fan when they have strung along and lied to. Wth A Dark Song as evidence, Liam Gavin appears to be a director who knows when to do the right thing; what he delivers here is a smooth tense two-hander that builds and builds to a finale that will split audiences, but it won’t undervalue them.
A Dark Song is a taught little psychological horror that uses the tried and tested metaphors of grief and loss as its canvas to explore the world of the occult. Catherine Walker gives a brilliant performance as Sophia, in one of those roles that requires a notable physical determination as well as emotional skill. She is, as they say, put through the mill. Walker does buttoned-up-tight very well, and as those buttons begin to unpick so does the fabric of the world around her, and our understanding of which direction Gavin’s film is going.
Sophia recruits an occult expert, Mr Solomon, in another great and unsettling performance by Steve Oram, to instruct her in a ritual that will reunite her with a lost loved one. They hole up in an old country manor somewhere in the rusty wilds of north Wales, and the meat of the movie is played out behind the closed doors over several seasons between these two ill-matched housemates. Oram it turns out has just as much baggage as Sophia, but the film is stronger for keeping us in the house with them, not divulging backstory. There are times when we are just as focussed on this mission as the characters.
As with recent horror masterpieces such as The Babadook and It Follows, the emphasis here is on tension rather than scares, and the camera prefers close ups of the actors’ faces as worlds disintegrate rather than lingering on dismemberments or the swing of an axe. A Dark Song, rather than an astute exploration of depression like in The Babadook, or a satire on urban decay and anxiety as with It Follows, is rather a simple horror parable, like Lovecraft written with some humanity. This is most certainly Sophia’s journey, and Solomon in the end is a rite of passage for her as much as he is simultaneously an enabler and obstacle. But one of the real successes of this small budget movie is how Gavin slowly reveals a sense of “the other”, and he deploys his special effects with real aplomb.
A Dark Song is a taught and sometimes truly gripping horror thriller with excellent central performances from Walker and Oram, put together by a director fully confident in the convictions of his project.
A Dark Song is showing at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff until June 22nd.