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rochefort [Celluloid 09.24.16] United Kingdom horror

If you're an avid fan of magic and the supernatural in cinema, you've still probably only seen a small handful of films that delve into the more workmanlike aspects of magical research, spell-casting, and summoning. Cinema is a visual medium, after all, and it's hard to conceive of how to make an exciting movie out of someone poring over old leather-bound tomes for years on end. This is the key challenge that director Liam Gavin set for himself in making A Dark Song, and the fact that the movie works at all is a small miracle in itself. Thankfully, it does more than just work, and is a pretty fascinating blend of the humdrum and the bold.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker), still grieving after a recent loss, tracks down occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) in the hopes that he can help her right old wrongs by summoning an otherworldly spirit. Solomon refuses at first, believing Sophia isn't being totally honest with him, and only agrees to help her once she admits the true reason she seeks supernatural intervention: her daughter was killed by a satanic cult, and she wants revenge for her murder. This requires an elaborate ritual that could take many months and must be strictly plotted out, and a single deviation could be disastrous. Sophia buys a house in the remote Irish countryside and stocks it with provisions and the assorted necessaries, while Solomon surrounds the house with a circle of salt and schools her in the intricacies of purification and meditation. They begin the arduous process that will see them confront not only the supernatural forces slowly pushing their way into the physical realm, but also a no less dangerous threat, the mundanity and boredom of living with a stranger, with nothing to do but wait.

Anchored by two excellent performances from its two leads, Gavin's film lulls you into the same mental space as its characters, and makes it clear that an actual, honest-to-gosh supernatural visitation is by no means a foregone conclusion. Walker and her co-star Oram (who's done memorable work for the likes of Ben Wheatley and Edgar Wright) do a superb job of creating characters we don't typically see in this sort of film, people who, despite their predilections and arcane skills, are otherwise quite ordinary. A great deal of the tension comes from the fact neither of them can be sure whether or not the ritual will work at all, and the awareness that they may be wasting months of their lives on what could amount to a black-robed farce tests their patience and inevitably their sanity.

I won't spoil the details of where things go, but I will say that the climax of the film delivers, not just in terms of general payoff but also in the way it stays true to the tonal risks the story takes from the beginning.

Sophia and Joseph are an odd pairing; similarly, the story's end itself fuses elements that typically appear in two very different kinds of horror film, and likewise appeal to two very different kinds of horror fan. I thought it worked extremely well, but I can easily understand why some might accuse the final moments of copping out or jumping the shark.

If nothing else, A Dark Song is memorable for its distinct and refreshingly grown-up approach to the mechanics of the unseen, and I found it a smart and savvy example of horror's new breed.

Recommended Release: The Awakening

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