A Dark Song is beautifully intense vision from first time director Liam Gavin. Though wrapped in a coating of occult horror, this is an arresting drama about the fragility of human connection. With a respectable set of A/V features Scream Factory’s Blu-ray is the perfect way to experience this moving film. Recommended.
“The world isn’t just science, is it?”
On the surface it’s easy to dismiss something like A Dark Song as another possession film dealing with rituals and black magic. Even through the first 15 minutes I felt this low budget offering from a first time director would lead into predictable ends with demons and regrettable decisions. Surprisingly, this Irish horror/drama proved to be a deep exploration of forgiveness and the human spirit with rituals and black magic.
The film opens on grieving mother Sophia renting an estate home in the Welsh countryside under the stipulation that everything be kept strictly private. Soon she meets with an expert on occult rituals named Solomon. She has arranged for him to visit the house. We learn of Sophia’s preparation for some ritual in which she has purified herself through abstaining from sex and alcohol. Solomon asks her why she is doing this. “For love” she says. When Solomon doubts her intentions he leaves demanding his money. Sophia reveals in haste that she lost her child and all she wants to do is hear his voice again. From here the two form an uneasy bond as Solomon is hired to facilitate the ritual and guide Sophia through it’s grueling practices. Solomon continues to distrust Sophia’s true intentions.
Joseph pours a salt line around the house sealing them inside for the duration of the ritual. An erratic percussive score invokes a nuts-and-bolts approach to the proceedings. This is more than just hushed prayers and calm meditation. Everything from a carload of groceries to printing pages of medieval text from the internet show that this isn’t some romanticized version of a Ouija board but something more concrete and tactile. Through the days of rigorous physical and emotional stress Sophia and Solomon test each other’s limits within the confines of the house. Breakthroughs occur that only bring out the skeptic in Sophia. It’s only when her true motivations are revealed that the ritual begins to intensify with unexpected results.
In another universe this would be a Ti West movie with a faux documentary style and forgettable characters. How Gavin transcends the possible exploitative elements is by losing the facade of horror and fear by avoiding tropes like exorcisms and possession. It’s the kitchen sink aesthetic and Sophia’s journey that make this such an engaging film. I adore the attention to detail within the ritual, but it’s the scenes in the kitchen and during their casual smoke breaks that ground this feature for me. Sure the inevitable fantastic moments that reward your patience are sublime, but those pale in comparison to the frank exchanges these two broken souls have during dinner. Catherine Walker and Steve Oram exhibit complete control when needed but allow scenes to explode when elements of the ritual prove more sadistic and cruel than expected. As Catherine’s character has this painful journey of finding a piece of herself hidden behind pain and vengeance and anger you’re slowly introduced to the broken soul leading her along.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray looks great given the film’s constant descent into dark spaces with minimal lighting. Cinematographer Cathal Watters captures the bleak intensity of the Welsh countryside with an eerie glow that is intoxicating. Ray Harman’s erratic scoring provides an unsettling blend of strings and percussion that blend perfectly with the visual palette. I found the film to be thoroughly engaging with high marks for originality and psychological thrills.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
A Dark Song arrives on Region A Blu-ray thanks to IFC Midnight and Scream Factory. The 50GB disc is housed in standard keepcase with an artwork matching slipcover. Loading the disc you’re met with the IFC Midnight Logo, Shout! Factory Logo, Scream Factory Logo and trailers for House on Willow Street, The Devil’s Candy, and The Axe Murders of Villisca before landing on the static Main Menu with typical navigation options.
Presented in 1080p with as aspect ratio of 2.40:1 A Dark Song looks fantastic. We’re given a clean transfer supplying accurate color reproduction even with the work’s dismal color palette and title appropriate dark setting. Skin tones appear even with fine detail present in costuming and setting. Yellows and reds appear bright though color tones are kept slightly burnt in tone. Blacks are deep with no detail lost in dark rooms and shadows. No macroblocking was evident. I’d recommend keeping the lighting low when viewing the film as some portions of the third act are in near complete darkness.
The featured audio track on this blu-ray is a DTS-HD MA 5.1 with an optional DTS-HD MA 2.0 track also available. Dark strings punctuate the scenes adding a foreboding sense of dread and anticipation. Sustained sequences pull you through scenes, while tense plucking provides a momentum through an otherwise peaceful scene. Scoring is atmospheric and creeps along with your journey through the film. The 5.1 surround track is nicely mixed with effects and scoring taking full advantage of the sound field. Dialogue is clear and clean with the Welsh accents being light enough to allow anyone to understand their English. I kept the subtitles on just in case I missed something within the ritual-speak scenes. Keep the remote handy as volume levels can fluctuate during the intense scenes.
Interview with Director Liam Gavin (HD 3:46) A quick interview with horror newcomer Liam Gavin who answers a few questions about his first feature. When asked about his favorite horror films he rattles through a few Korean and Japanese features like Dark Water, A Tale of Two Sisters, and Ringu. Knowing that I can see those influences in A Dark Song.
Interview with Actor Steve Oram (HD 6:31) On set interview intercut with behind-the-scenes footage from the set. Steve details the motivations behind his character Joseph Solomon and his experiences making the film.
Interview with Actress Catherine Walker (HD 9:05) “I don’t know if there is a genre for this film” Catherine says about the deeper message within this film and her character Sophia. Her quiet and measured interview here is a somber look into her take on Sophia and working with such powerful themes in the film. She cites Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as an inspiration for her work on the film.
Interview with Director of Photography Cathal Watters (HD 6:42) A veteran of Irish short films and documentaries, Cathal Watters marks A Dark Song as his first horror feature. Using on-set footage Cathal walks us through working with Liam Gavin, setting up various shots, and his approach to the film.
Deleted Scenes (HD 9:59) 7 small scenes from the film.
Storyboards (HD 14:02) Storyboard images from the film scroll continuously.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 2:16)
A Dark Song is an impressive outing for first time director Liam Gavin who has provided a character study on the pain of forgiveness and vengeance wrapped in a gritty cloak of occult rituals. Performances are strong from the start in this atmospheric film that will reward your patience in the end. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray looks great and provides enough special features to please anyone looking to delve deeper into this stirring film. Recommended.