Horror cinema has taken some interesting turns in recent years, with a number of talented filmmakers crafting tales that plumb much more nuanced depths than a horror movie aficionado might expect. Jump scares are fine, but a true and deeper sense of dread can, under the right conditions and with the right audience, proved a far more unsettling effect. In this second camp we find a recent Irish-British production that examines the unique pain one feels when grieving for an unexpected and traumatic loss, and how that journey can so easily lead us, in our sorrow, off the path toward acceptance, peace and recovery and into a dark hinterland of twisted emotions, gnarled pain and demons where there ought to be angels. This movie is A Dark Song, and it might just be one of the most powerful stories ever made about the magic ceremonies, dealing with higher and lower powers, and being careful for what one wishes. Because if you ask long and hard enough, you might just get it.
The story takes place in a lonely old mansion in rural Wales. There we find a young woman named Sophia still grieving over the loss of her seven-year-old son, whom she does name, as if to speak his name would cross some kind of ancient and sacrosanct threshold. But Sophia cannot rest until she has one last conversation with her departed son, so she hires a misanthropic occultist named Joseph Solomon to guide her through a grueling, months-long mystic ritual from the Book of Abremlin that, if done properly, will grant Sophia an one-question-only audience with her boy’s guardian angel. From the beginning, Solomon warns Sophia that this ritual is not going to be easy or without sacrifice. She must obey Solomon’s every instruction without question, no matter how strange or vile, and she must be completely honest with him about why she wants this. And she absolutely cannot leave the house until they are finished. If she does, the ritual will not only fail to work as intended, but it will likely invite demons into this world to torment her and perhaps even to drag her back to the shadows from whence they came. As the two shut themselves in, Sophia and Solomon begin an intense contest against their own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual limits as they push ever harder against borders between this world and the next that for many different reasons are better left alone.
This is perhaps one of the most understated horror movies made in recent years. It offers hardly a single jump scare, and those few that exist are rather tame by conventional standards. There is little gore or physical violence, but what does exist is there largely to produce an emotional, rather than visceral effect. There is a kind of emotional horror throughout, but it is not the kind of wild despair or panic we so often see in the horror genre. Rather, it is the slow descent from grief to despair to desperation, the kind of long trip one makes from a world they once knew to one they no longer recognize, only that world is one’s own self. This is a movie that is all about atmosphere, and at first it draws you in on the power of your own morbid curiosity. But then you dare not leave thanks to the power of your need for the same kinds of answers Sophia is looking for. Only by the time you get there, your intentions might be more honest than hers.
Honesty is a huge theme of this story, and it’s at the heart of the fractious relationship between Sophia and Solomon. From the beginning, we have little reason to like either character. We sympathize with Sophia’s obvious grief, but it has curdled into something toxic, and we can easily imagine she has no one left in her life because she has pushed them all away in favor of holding on to things that bring her pain over peace. Meanwhile, Solomon is clearly a dirty bastard who is honest enough to trust his mystic skills, but not enough to trust him to not get really gross about it along the way. He is so angry over his own thirst for knowledge he makes anyone close to him pay for it, and those are the ones seeking the secrets he already knows. His anger is practically a hanging question that goes unspoken but always felt: Why do you want this? Don’t you know this is the worst possible way to find the answers you seek?
The movie gets especially interesting as we enter the final act, as Sophia and Solomon are fighting each other as much as they fighting their own failing strength to finish this dark song of theirs and see what awaits them at the end of it. Throughout, we know that Solomon himself has only done this three times before, and of them, only one was successful. What if all of this is for nothing? It’s a creepy question to ask: if Sophia puts herself through the hardship, isolation and torment just to speak with her dead child, what would really be the worst outcome? To know that she failed her child one last time? Or to learn something from him that she cannot possibly bear to live with thereafter?
That’s the real horror of A Dark Song. As fascinating as it is to see Solomon guide Sophia through her ritual, it’s when we see evidence of it beginning to work that we feel the same elation and fear that she does. I might speak with a dead loved one are words that should be absolutely terrifying should we ever find ourselves asking them right before they might come true. And in this movie, the moment of truth is indeed when Sophia comes face to face with the truth and learns where the answers she seeks have been hiding all along.