REVIEW: A Dark Song
– By Allan Lear
It’s often said that fiction is life with the boring bits cut out. Characters in fiction never go to the toilet or brush their teeth unless there is a symbolic meaning to the act of micturition or a chance that a serial killer will stab them to bits over the sink.
Take, for example, the medical drama. All you get from medical drama is the bit right at the end of a doctor’s career, where they’re allowed to grope about inside people and pull out cancers like toy soldiers from a bran tub. You don’t see the years upon years of schooling, training, research, auditing and taking exams that make up an actual medical career, because if you wanted to live through all that, you’d have become a doctor. Why didn’t you do that? You’re a disappointment to your mother.
The same syndrome afflicts horror fiction of the thaumaturgical persuasion. There are millions of stories of nasty magical bastards using their supernatural powers for evil, but you never get to see the decades of standardised testing, mentoring and memorising reams of professional standards literature that marked the first few decades of their career in occult evil. Most of the time you don’t even get to see the spellcasting that summons the rapacious monster from the pit that is the film’s deadly antagonist; at best you get an old tape recording, or someone finding a piece of paper with weird writing on it and reads it aloud for no fucking reason.
Well, if it’s that easy, why was Aleister Crowley broke all his life? Why didn’t he just kill everyone with magic and take the throne? Obviously because there’s no such thing as magic. But also because he wasted the vast majority of his time on all the ludicrous paraphernalia and general fannying-around that ritual magic requires. Sacrifices, invocations, circles, “ritual sex” (a phrase meaning “coercing pretty young women into getting knobbed by old ugly men”) and all that nonsense. We never see that in the films, even though you’d think there would be something in there that would be cinematic. Provided you recast the old men, possibly with a Hemsworth or two.
For the magickal purists amongst you, such a film is finally here. A Dark Song tells the story of a bereaved mother who wants to contact her dead son and finds that it’s not a simple case of getting a Ouija board (other family-friendly board games are available if you ever find yourself in the midst of a wet weekend in Wales in 1973) and slowly spelling out answers letter by letter like you’re the Dictionary Corner on Dumbfuck Countdown. Instead it’s a long, arduous process involving an angry bald Brummy with a phenomenal ginger beard, lots of shouting, and intermediate German lessons.
It’s an unusual approach for a film and you’d think it would be dull, but it’s cleverly combined with a conceit in which the two of them need to be isolated for a long time in order to work through all the rituals together. Consequently we get a drama like a highly miniaturised Big Brother where two people in an enclosed space rub each other up every way possible…and with the promise/threat of the dreaded “ritual sex” always hanging over them. As the film progresses, we learn more about the two protagonists, including hints at why the angry Brummy is so angry…and that the grieving mother is perhaps not the wounded angel she appears to be.
For the great majority of A Dark Song, I don’t think you could really characterise it as a horror film at all. It’s a character piece, more like a suspense drama than a horror movie, and anybody looking for the tropes of the slasher flick will be disappointed by the absence of jump scares, bloody murders, sporting equipment worn facially, and lethal cheerleading errors. If your assessment of the quality of a horror film is, like the teenagers of The League of Gentleman, “How many killingth?” then this is not a film that will tickle your scary bone.
It has plenty of compensations for the low body count though. For a start, it’s different. The story of mutual self-discovery through ritual and incarceration is unlike any that’s doing the rounds of the film scene at present, and it captures the imagination in a way that yet another rote recitation of the slasher standards can’t.
If you’re going to have a two-hander, of course, then you need two good actors to carry it, and A Dark Song has come up trumps in this regard. Steve Oram – probably best known to the target audience from Ben Wheatley’s superb Sightseers – gives an ego-free turn as the unattractive and spikey Brummy ipsissimus, and Catherine Walker’s grieving mother with hidden depths comes across as resilient and intelligent with, vitally, no hint of the victim status that would have been easy to sell but would have undermined the character’s relatability. Valuable support is given by Susan Loughnane and Mark Huberman playing the outside world on the rare occasions when it is glimpsed.
Finally, A Dark Song is intelligent. It’s not shamelessly cerebral, like the recent Arrival, or autistically focussed on brainpower to the extent of eliminating empathy for the people in its world; but it is cleverly-plotted, fiercely well-written and sympathetically directed in a way that keeps the audience hooked on the lives of the protagonists. The yin-yang nature of the characters – one prickly and blunt with a vulnerable core, one heartbroken and tender with a spine made of steel-reinforced unobtainium – neatly mirrors the central philosophies of the ‘magick’ on display, and the occult mumbo-jumbo is given philosophical room to breathe rather than just being a mumbling of invented syllables.
A slow-burning film about existential dread and the frailty of human ambition, A Dark Song will not leave you dealing with the malodorous consequences of terror-evacuated bowels, but it will intrigue, involve and impress. This is a superlative example of how one dramatises the ninety-eight per cent of life that doesn’t involve exploding helicopters.