On the outside, A Dark Song, the strong, self-assured debut for Irish writer-director Liam Gavin, is a simple, well-told occult thriller. It’s suitably creepy, featuring several genuine scares, and quite mysterious, with a dense, well-researched mythology serving as its skeleton. However, at its core A Dark Song is a delicious study of two strikingly different characters: grieving mother Sophia (Catherine Walker) and Joseph (Steve Oram), the vulgar, hedge witch-ish occult expert she has hired to conduct an expensive, months-spanning ritual that could put her in touch with her dead son.

The film is basically a two-hander between Sophia and Joseph, who spend months together in an old house in the Welsh hinterlands. It is apparent from the beginning that, while she is eager for the ritual to work and wants to whole-heartedly engage in Joseph’s prescribed tasks, Sophia is a natural skeptic and wants physical proof of the ritual’s success. Joseph, a vicious taskmaster with alcoholic tendencies and a leering eye, demands Sophia’s compliance, and as time passes, it becomes clear that he has more of an interest in the outcome of the ritual than just Sophia’s payment.

Gavin’s tight script and tidy direction keeps things interesting, spending just enough time exploring Joseph’s intricate ritual, The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, which is a real fifteenth century ritual that is based in Kabbalah and meant to conjure one’s guardian angel. This compelling mythology serves as the perfect backdrop for Walker and Oram’s terrific acting, which is the real draw here. Walker’s emotionally and physically raw performance demands attention, while Oram’s Joseph is initially repulsive yet weirdly compelling. As Sophia literally falls under his spell, the audience will also.

What works so well with A Dark Song’s characters, and what Walker and Oram play so well, is that Gavin doesn’t reveal everything about either of them all at once. Neither is a trope. Sophia is not a scream queen or a final girl. She is neither chaste nor overtly sexual. She has many secrets, and the film twists as we learn more about her and her true motives in fits and starts rather than in an aha! moment. And Joseph, at first so off-putting, is revealed through commitment to his rigorous craft, and he becomes more intriguing as he goes further and further to help Sophia reach her goal. Questions are answered about both by the end of the film, yet enough secrets remain for A Dark Song to feel like the harsh and smart film that it is instead of tidy or manipulative.

The cinematography by Cathal Watters (who recently lensed the cult gay hit Viva) is gorgeous, drawing luminous, deep colors from dark shadows and low skies. And Ray Harman’s score beautifully supports the film’s balance of bleak despair and occasional enlightenment.

Perhaps the most gratifying element of A Dark Song outside of its strong central performances is the film’s commitment to big ideas. Gavin really goes for it and it feels natural when moving beyond the typical limits of horror, dipping into the realm of fantasy by the end. These flourishes are supported by excellent visual work, and A Dark Song is a master class on how low-budget special effects should be done.

Despite that excellent work, it still would have been wonderful to see what Gavin could have done with a blockbuster budget. A late turn towards the dark side is believably depicted but is obviously limited by financial limitations rather than artistic ones. This makes the latter fourth of the film a bit confusing, all shadows and small spaces. However, the film finds its way again by the end with its shock of an ending, which is the polar opposite of the kind of gut punch modern fright flicks tend to leave with.

A Dark Song is smart, scary, well-acted and thoroughly thought provoking. It’s bleak, without being mean-spirited, and spiritual, even fantastical, without being self-conscious about it. It would be worthy of praise if it wasn’t a debut feature film starring two veteran character actors rather than big-name stars, but the fact that it is makes it all the more of an achievement.

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