31 Days of Fright

Occultism as Mechanism in A Dark Song

In Liam Gavin‘s full-length directorial debut, grieving mother Sophia (Catherine Walker) contracts with ill-tempered occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) for him to guide her through a ritual. The month’s long procedure will summon an angel and allow her to speak with her late son. Sophia rents a large rural manor in Wales for the procedure and after his initial reticence, Mr. Soloman agrees. What follows is an incredibly intense undertaking fixed solely upon these two characters, their prejudices, fears, and the secrets they are keeping.

screenshot-2020-10-19-110928Sophia is a teacher with enough means to rent a large manor for a year, and a person whose trauma has pushed her away from her family. Catherine Walker does excellently in a potentially difficult role, given that it is centered largely around what the character is not saying. The result is someone who is inscrutable, cold, and driven – at least for a majority of the film. Steve Oram’s character Joseph was also carefully designed by the director; Gavin stated in an interview that he wanted Joseph Soloman to be a grounded, working-class man. This character aims to depart from the idea of magic as a given attribute of an elite few. Gavin felt that this would make the magic more real and it works. The idea of a shaman or mage who has mastered his craft not through some birthright but by sheer obsession lends greatly to the realism that the film pivots on. Soloman starts the story as a belligerent and abusive bully, so while he may be more relatable than his fellow lead, he is almost impossible to like.

A Dark Song’s approach to the theme of occultism is somewhat unique. Occult practices abound; sealing the manor in a ring of salt, the comprehension of magic circles and squares, and the progression through arduous tests of lack of sleep and food. However these things and their results are not pitched to us as especially wondrous. There are certainly moments of clear otherworldly presence, but A Dark Song isn’t giving us magic as we might know it in other films. The occult structure we are operating within is not framed as being inherently good or bad, it is occult in the most basic definition of the word – obscured, or indeed, dark. Many films, especially those inhabiting mainstream franchises (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, Oujia) that feature such rites align them with evil, death, and destruction. Bad things happen in this film, but they occur because of the intentions and mistakes of the people operating the system, not the system itself. In one particularly memorable scene, Sophia and Soloman are discussing the workings of magic, Sophia questioning Soloman’s motivations. He says; “No, the point is to know. – And to see the architecture, and the levers to climb the mountain – knowledge.” It is within this mindset that the ritual grinds on like some endless endurance test.

The real action of the film is taking place in the interplay between Soloman and Sophia. The two central characters are at odds from the start, Soloman views her as spoiled and superficial, and she hates him for his belligerence. In the end Sophia cannot admit her true intentions, and this coupled with Soloman’s abuses of power begin to throw things off the rails. The house, now unshackled from reality, becomes a pressure cooker filled not only with the two human leads but a host of strange intruders. The final act of the film wobbles slightly under the pressure, but the last few scenes pull it back around in a striking way. Without imparting the details of the ending, it is something like an illusion act; on reflection, we realize that the film has carefully managed what it’s shown us so that in reaching its climax we are overwhelmed. The audience is seeing something that both they and the people in the story could not have imagined until now.

Despite its occult and horror trappings, if the few fantastical sections were removed, the film would still be an interesting study of how ritual is necessary to human psychology and how people behave in isolation. This is a testament to how it is written and performed, unlike so many horror protagonists that are designed for us to dislike (just consider the Hostel franchise) the audience starts out genuinely disliking Soloman and Sophia, yet through the action of the ritual, we end up caring about these flawed and ultimately vulnerable human beings. Perhaps even just the act of watching A Dark Song is something of a ritual itself. We are learning, like the people therein, to forgive.

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