Gotta Have Faith: "A Dark Song" a mystifying, modestly creepy two-hander

A Dark Song (2017) 
100 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“A Dark Song” is a very unusual kind of horror indie. Predominantly a two-hander and playing like a procedural in the occult, it’s a chamber drama about grief, faith and forgiveness, as well as a Chinese puzzle box that neglects to hold the hands of viewers who are accustomed to getting their creeps in graphic, obvious close-ups rather than gradually. It serves as a strong calling card for first-time feature writer-director Liam Gavin, who astutely builds an ominous tone and mystifying mood. Darkly enticing with an almost impenetrable air about it, “A Dark Song” is admittedly tough-going at times, but it transfixes nonetheless and packs a lingering, understated punch.

Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) is now defined by her grief. She buys an old furnished house in the Welsh countryside for a year. She has purified herself without alcohol for almost six months, has abstained from sex, only eats between dusk and dawn and will eventually fast completely. She has paid a slovenly, unpredictably tempered London bloke named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), who comes to check out the house and then demands his money. When she ups his pay and tells him that she lost her son three years ago, Joseph reconsiders to help her go through with “it” if she agrees to do whatever he says. For almost a whole year, the odd couple holes up in the house with a line of sand outside the house that prevents them from leaving. Even while the prickly Joseph experiences delirium tremens, he puts Sophia through something darker than most ancient rituals.

Curiosity piqued from the onset, “A Dark Song” is quietly gripping as one not only waits for the other shoe to drop but to actually piece together both characters’ goals. Though this is a horror film, it is one made with so much care and with more on its mind. Childlike whispers and dark figures make their rightful appearance, but this isn’t really a haunted-house picture. Most of the tension hails from the partnership between Sophia and Joseph. At first, they are both intriguing ciphers cutting themselves off from the world, but vulnerable layers are slowly peeled back little by little and achieve sympathy. Her Sophia is getting through the grieving process the only way she knows how, and his Joseph is sometimes a contentious bully. Whether or not Joseph really is an expert in the occult and wants to help Sophia becomes the question at the core of the film, and Sophia must put her blind faith in him.

For a film about dark magic evoking human catharsis, “A Dark Song” follows through with its premise and internal logic. In doing so, writer-director Liam Gavin takes a gambit near the end with a grandiose special-effects moment that threatens to break the spell of suggestion. Fortunately, it does not. Helping the cause are the finely modulated performances Gavin gets out of his cast consisting of Catherine Walker (2013’s “Dark Touch”) and Steve Oram (2013’s “Sightseers”), who both fully commit to the mentally and emotionally draining demands of the material. The film also never wants for disorientation with composer Ray Harman's eerie music score, a mix of violin and clangy chords. Through modest means and most likely a tight shooting schedule, Gavin achieves more than most filmmakers do with a multi-million-dollar budget.