The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Dark Song

A Dark Song is one of the most unsettling horror movies of recent years. There's really no graphic violence in it. Most of the film is two people sitting in a remote house. That doesn't sound scary on the surface, yet writer/director Liam Gavin establishes a tone of such ominousness -- and tells a story of such raw intensity -- that you can't help but shudder at times. This is a magnificent debut.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is a grieving woman who has been driven to desperate measures. She hires occult expert Joseph (Steve Oram) to perform some black magic rituals that will let her speak to her deceased son one more time. Joseph is a drunk and a bit callous, but he's all she's got. Holed up in a rented house that's “sealed” with special powder around the perimeter, Sophia is put through six months of rituals that threaten to push her to the edge of sanity.

Horror comes in two forms in A Dark Song. The rituals themselves are psychologically – and sometimes physically – unpleasant for Sophia. One involves kneeling in an uncomfortable position without moving (or eating and drinking) for several days. Another is sexual in nature. Each one is more intense than the one before. The film invites you to put yourself in Sophia's shoes as she endures each of them, which proves to be a nerve-rattling proposition.

The second, and possibly deeper horror comes from the fact that Joseph seems untrustworthy. Is he really helping her, or is he just exploiting her in some deranged game? Slovenly dressed and frequently at least half intoxicated, he doesn't seem like an expert in the occult. Then again, what does an expert in the occult look like, anyway? Doesn't it seem likely that some anti-social loser would be exactly the kind of person to become heavily self-educated on such matters? To the movie's credit, we're never sure whether Joseph is legit or not until Gavin is ready to provide that answer.

Walker and Oram give outstanding performances, generating a fascinatingly twisted chemistry. Joseph bullies Sophia at times, insisting that she unquestioningly subject herself to every specific thing he dictates. She, meanwhile, is intent on proving how serious she is about the process. There's nothing he can throw at her that she won't put herself through. The actors devote their energies to making this sick dynamic as real and as palpable as possible. It can be difficult in some films to understand why characters do things we ourselves would never conceive of doing. The two leads help us see the internal logic that drives Sophia and Joseph.

For an hour-and-a-half, A Dark Song is sheer perfection. The only place where it missteps (slightly) is in the final few minutes. A story of this nature is hard to wrap up. Do you show something otherworldly? Do you suggest that black magic is real, or go for some other point? Those are just some of the questions to be grappled with. What Gavin comes up with is solid from a storytelling point of view. You've got to think about it and let the meaning sink in. However, the visualization of it feels disconnected from everything else. A Dark Song is, by necessity, visually restrained for most of its running time. Ending with a grandiose special effect feels a bit out of sync. An ending subtly suggesting what Sophia actually faces might have been more appropriate.

That very minor issue doesn't dampen the impact, though. A Dark Song is both scary and poignant, thanks to the superb performances and a story that isn't afraid throw its characters into the abyss of depravity.

( 1/2 out of four)

A Dark Song is unrated, but contains language, sexual content, and some overall intensity. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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