‘A Dark Song’ shows what horror can achieve

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It may be tempting to call “A Dark Song,” the first feature from director Liam Gavin, a supernatural drama instead of horror. It has all the gravitas and character development of the best drama and some of the most subtle scares to come out of any horror movie in years. But to call it a drama is a disservice. “A Dark Song” is horror and has drama, not the other way around. And it’s one of the leanest and most profound horror movies out this year.

Its driving force, at first, is grief. Sophia (Catherine Walker) lost her son three years ago and turns to the occult to speak to him again. She hires the reclusive cultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to conduct a ritual to allow this, and he reluctantly accepts. The ritual, he says, will last months and drain her in the process. By the end, they will meet their guardian angels and wish for anything. His only rules are that she does what he says and is always honest. Ominously, he says that every lie has a consequence, big or small.

Regardless, Sophia follows neither rule completely and the consequences come quick. Gavin navigates how this changes her relationship with Solomon deftly, making both her and Joseph’s flaws apparent while never overstating them. These are both damaged people looking for God or something like it for some assurance. As they are broken down, their relationship takes on a deeper significance, one of sacrifice and transformation.

Now, I don’t mean to exaggerate. Sophia and Joseph are not religious icons or martyrs. If anything, their passage emphasizes their own spirituality and capacity for forgiveness more than any higher power. Gavin draws a distinct line between religion and spirituality, here. Joseph doesn’t believe in the supernatural so much as he knows it’s real, something Sophia struggles with. In an apt moment, she asks him why he does he what he does: “To know,” he replies.

What’s notable is that Gavin, despite his heady content, prefers to keep it simple. Joseph wants to know, and Sophia wants to see her son again. Neither drifts from their purpose, though the road to them is a twisted one. Walker and Oram’s performances emphasize this steadfastness (or stubbornness). Singling either out, however, is disingenuous because their chemistry makes the characters.

Front to back, “A Dark Song” is an airtight shocker with strong performances and even stronger direction. It’s not just a singular horror movie, but a singular movie. There’s precedent for one-house flicks like this, but none achieve what “A Dark Song” does. This may seem like an overstatement, but no one part of the movie falls short. All of it simply works, from the understated beginning to the audacious ending. It won’t have you singing along, but “A Dark Song” deserves any ears that find it.