Immodestly, I have a pretty wide knowledge of what’s considered “black magic” – it’s been an interest of mine since my very early teens. I say this as someone who, simultaneously, has no belief whatsoever in the supernatural or magic, it’s just a subject that I’m endlessly fascinated by. Recently, I saw a blurb on the internet claiming that a horror movie explored the Abremalin ritual in detail, so I had to see it for myself. That movie is 2016’s A Dark Song.
For anyone unfamiliar with the various occult rituals (and let’s face it, that’s almost everybody), the Abremalin ritual is an arduous summoning of one’s guardian angel for the purpose of gaining its knowledge and wisdom. Since this is a movie review, I’m not going to go into the ritual in any kind of depth – you can probably find various informationals online if you’re inclined to do that – but when I said it’s arduous, it’s actually beyond that. This is no eye of newt kind of spell whipped up in a bubbling cauldron, it’s a ritual that takes an incredible amount of preparation time – months – and an almost superhuman dedication to the successful completion of it. Having watched the movie, I can tell you that it captured what I know of the ritual perfectly.
The premise of the movie is intriguing. After liquidating all of her assets, Sophie (Catherine Walker) rents a large house in the countryside in order to provide uninterrupted the solitude required by the ritual, but the bulk of her money goes to the hiring of Joseph (Steve Oram), a black magician who is able to perform the ritual. “Black magician” is probably not the most accurate way to describe him, but you get the idea. Catherine initially hides her true purpose for performing the ritual, but eventually confesses to Joseph that she is seeking vengeance over the adbuction/murder of her child. It’s through this confession that the ritual begins to show signs of success, after months of failure. The setup for the movie is good (though the Abremalin ritual appears to have been tweaked slightly to accommodate the revenge plot), and the movie looks great. The majority of the running time is set in the big house, and is suitably dreary, depressing, and imposing – which is a perfect foil for a movie that is carried on the shoulders of the two actors. Other than the opening scenes, Walker and Oram are the only actors in the entire movie, whose performances add a veneer of claustrophobic gloom to the entire movie. And they’re fine performances too, with Oram coming out slightly ahead in his portrayal of Joseph as a different kind of occult character – while highly knowledgable, he’s also boorish and crude. It reminded me a lot of the early appearances of John Constantine in the DC universe. Walker is good too, but many of her scenes involve her suffering for the sake of the ritual, which leads to the movie’s biggest flaw, which is the subject matter itself.
As I mentioned, the Abremalin ritual is arduous and l o n g, and while most of it involves a dedicated major lifestyle change in the prep, the ritual itself is heavy in reinforcement – in a movie like this where the story is solely focused on the ritual that leads to much repetition, and that would normally be the kiss of death. I watched this with my wife and daughter (who is, like me, a fan of the horror genre), and all three of us shared the same complaint: the pacing is far too slow. And that’s purely because of the nature of the story. In order to show a reasonably accurate portrayal of the ritual, writer/director Liam Gavin devotes many minutes to scenes which don’t really do anything to advance the main plot, which is already self-limiting, and more suited to the short features he graduated from rather than a full feature.
Now, having said that, this is the only major criticism I have of the movie. I found the acting, direction, and cinematography was enough to carry me through to the end. And about THAT end … I might be one of the few people who actually liked it. If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly which part of the end I’m referring to, not the lead up to it, which I felt could have been done better. No, THAT end comes out of nowhere, and you’ll either like it or hate it. In many ways the direction Gavin chose reminded me of something I would write myself. It’s unexpected, yes, but it serves a few additional purposes: it’s a vastly different change of subject and pace, but it also serves as a means for Sophie to re-examine herself and her goals. To that end, I felt it was beautifully organic – but I can totally understand how it just won’t work for others, at least visually.
Overall, despite my problems with the pacing, I enjoyed A Dark Song, but maybe because I was already primed to do so with my interest in all things occult.
© Andrew Hope, 2017