It’s kind of astonishing that there hasn’t been a film quite like Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song yet—it’s a premise so simple and familiar that the genre has done it countless times, just not quite like this. Gavin’s take on ritualistic horror is so original and raw that it hits in a way that most horror movies don’t because it’s entirely in its own world with its own rules. In it, a determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want.
A Dark Song is very much a story about grieving and loss, and how we deal with losing someone so close. It’s a sad story that revolves around a broken mother that’s willing to do anything to get back what she lost; her desperation is so heartbreaking and sad that it really sets the tone for the rest of the film—you know she’s going to do whatever it takes, even if it means inviting evil into her home. It’s that justifiable recklessness of a mother attempting to conjure another world that perfectly sets up Gavin’s house of horrors.
Where the film really sets itself apart, however, is that it’s a complete dissection of the ritual itself; almost the entire movie is spent performing each and every step in shocking detail. Most horror movies spend very little time on this—they light a few candles, mumble a couple of words, and voila you have your demons. This movie is nothing like that. And because A Dark Song dedicates an entire narrative to this one ritual, it has a surprisingly sharp edge that completely caught me off guard. We watch this woman go through hell for something that she’s not even sure is going to work—that doubt becomes viciously engaging the more the ritual consumes her.
What I really liked about the movie is that the deeper it gets, the more it starts to play tricks on you and its characters. Are they beginning to go crazy or is the ritual actually starting to work? It’s one of the strongest aspects of the film and Gavin completely takes advantage of it. There are so many subtly creepy moments in the film that work because you can’t quite tell if what you’re seeing is actually there or not. Most of the movie feels very grounded and real, adding a layer to it that allows its horror to unfold naturally and slowly—but sometimes too slowly. At times it drags its feet with some scenes lingering about with almost no payoff. It’s the type of film that requires a lot of patience, putting the slow in slow-burn.
But my biggest issue with the film isn’t that it’s slow, it’s that the final act completely abandons everything that made it so good to begin with—that sense of realness and the slow crawling build-up of the ritual falls apart in the final act. And it’s not that the ending is bad per se (some people might love the way it goes completely off the rails), but it just didn’t quite hit me the way everything else did. I think your level of enjoyment for A Dark Song will almost entirely hinge on how you take those ambitious final moments because everything leading up to it is as fascinating as it is haunting. Gavin really taps into some new territory with this one, so it would be a shame to dismiss it on account of a faulty, batshit finale.