8 out of 10
Directed by Liam Gavin
A Dark Song Review:
When it comes to horror cinema, I’m more impressed by tone than effect. It’s easier to startle than to disturb, easier to throw something at the screen with a discordant sound or piece of score than it is to sustain a mood or get underneath the skin. For average horror fans looking for a movie to toss popcorn to, films like A Dark Song probably won’t do much for them, but for those of us who take movies home with them when they leave in the interiors of our minds and soul, they are precious and few, and cherished. A Dark Song is one of the latter.
This is Liam Gavin’s first feature film, and already he displays incredible restraint and skill in telling this story of a young woman seeking vengeance in a most unconventional manner. Victoria (Catherine Walker) is broken by tragedy and heartbreak, and is searching for a way to assuage her pain. Enter Joseph (Steve Oram), who offers her a chance – only a chance, mind you – for some peace and for revenge. That chance lies in roads not taken lightly, dealing with forces beyond our control and comprehension. For Joseph, it’s a chance to look at the architecture, as he calls it, of the universe, but for Victoria it is her only option. For months the two of them explore the dark underbelly of the world, each for their own reasons and motivations. What they discover will shatter their preconceptions of the world and their place in the universe.
Plotwise, that’s really all you should know going in. ovies like this are hard to review (and fairly common at Fantastic Fest) because to go further into it risks spoiling what makes it so effective. This is a quiet, slow-burn horror film, dependent on character and texture rather than the jump scare. But it is very effective in what it does. I’ve found myself thinking about this film for days afterwards, especially the ending, which is one of those rare instances when a horror film teases and then delivers on those teases. Gavin uses sound and silence to great effect here, forcing the audience to pay attention to their surroundings.
Although A Dark Song is primarily set in one location, the film feels a lot larger and expansive than the one location would suggest. That’s because Gavin, as writer and director, fills A Dark Song full of ideas and possibilities, allowing the audience to play with the film in their heads. Gavin’s script dives into deep ideas and themes, but also into the mechanics of strange phenomena and how to gain access to it. If I’m being too vague, it’s because many of A Dark Song’s discoveries are best left to the audience to discover. Those hoping for a simpler approach will be disappointed – for lack of a better metaphor, Liam Gavin isn’t afraid to get into the weeds and the minutiae of his story, and his actors are more than game to follow his lead.
The performances are top-notch, and although the movie is essentially a two-piece, these actors do a lot of heavy lifting and cover quite a bit of emotional ground. Catherine Walker gives Victoria purpose and determination, even when she questions what she’s doing. She never trusts Joseph to do what she needs him to do, and Joseph, a misanthrope of the highest order, sees Victoria as merely a tool to achieve his goals. Steve Oram is also terrific, a brute and scary person who isn’t above abuse and manipulation to get what he wants. These two circle each other, sometimes as combatants, sometimes as kindred spirits, and A Dark Song would fall apart if not for Walker and Oram’s intensity and talent. They are always watchable, and when the film takes the turns that it takes, they are our navigators through very dark waters indeed.
I’d be very curious to see what Liam Gavin can do with larger stories, and not to give anything away, but if Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is adapted into a movie, I think Liam Gavin would approach the material with the right skill and temperament. He’s both well versed in the mechanics as well as the spirit of truly disturbing and dangerous filmmaking, and A Dark Song is, while very deliberate, also very engaging. A Dark Song is well worth finding for horror fans interested in disturbing, engaging material.