Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
There is horror in uncertainty, and uncertainty is the very essence of A Dark Song, director Liam Gavin’s underappreciated 2016 indie horror feature from Ireland. Intimate, methodical and masterfully composed, it’s a self-assured film that leans entirely on a duo of powerhouse performances from actors Steve Oram and Catherine Walker, portraying a pair of strangers who knowingly choose to immerse themselves in an arduous supernatural ordeal.
Veteran Irish actress Walker is Sophia, a grieving mother who has explored all earthly options following the abduction and murder of her 7-year-old son. Willing to do whatever it takes to truly earn a chance at personal closure, she seeks out Joseph (Oram), a short-tempered occultist who claims he can deliver her the opportunity to speak with her loved one again. For a big enough fee, that is. Together, they set up shop in a small cottage in Wales and get down to the business of touching the Other Side.
If that premise sounds conventional enough in theory, this is where comparisons to other supernatural horror films begin to bleed away. Contacting the dead is no simple matter in A Dark Song—according to Joseph, it’s not something that can be done in a teen’s bedroom with a ouija board, or at a casual Friday night seance over glasses of cheap wine. Rather, the process, which is designed to contact one’s own personal “guardian angel,” is an incredibly precise, grueling, laborious undertaking that strains one’s physical, mental and spiritual fortitude to the breaking point. Dedication is required—not just dedication, but suffering and purging, to cleanse one’s spiritual essence to the point where contact with the higher planes becomes possible. Isolated entirely from the outside world, and unable to break from the process once it is begun, Sophia is meant to give herself entirely over to this endeavor for literally months at a time, in the hope that they will eventually break through to their destination.
Or that’s what the ever-belligerent Joseph says, anyway, and the question of trust immediately springs to the forefront. What do we know about this man? He certainly doesn’t possess the composed bearing or well-developed empathy you might expect from someone who has previously succeeded in proving the existence of life after death, as Joseph claims to have done in the past. Rather, he has the air of a dedicated misanthrope, resentful of society but willing to be locked up with a stranger in a secluded cabin for months all the same. It begs the question, how willing is Joseph to profit off Sophia’s grief and desperation to experience something ethereal? How much of her degradation might be for his own satisfaction? And even if he does know what he’s doing, what motives might drive him to offer these services in the first place?
A Dark Song takes its time addressing any of those questions, instead letting the two personalities circle around each other, building the kind of intimate familiarity that can exist even between enemies when they’re in close enough contact for an extended period. Rarely do we have any indication that the extended ritual is “working,” as it were, and even when things finally do start to happen, there’s no way to be certain if they’re happening correctly. As we begin to understand the depth of minutia upon which the ritual apparently hinges, we begin to fear that even the smallest possible infraction could have deadly consequences. At one point, for instance, Sophia is commanded to remain within a small chalked circle for days at a time, but director Gavin clearly draws our attention to her trickle of urine dribbling outside the circle as she endures the trial. Does this represent some contract broken in the eyes of celestial beings overseeing the ritual? Might some small slip-up damn the pair of these people, or are they engaged in an elaborate LARP to begin with, led by a power-seeking conman?
Rest assured, A Dark Song doesn’t chicken out when the time finally comes finally to lay its cards on the table. Frighteningly intense at times, it draws the viewer entirely into the binary world of these two characters: A pair of resolute personalities weathering the trial of their lifetimes. In its closing moments, the film achieves a dramatic crescendo that has truly been well-earned, by both the characters and the filmmaker shepherding them—a moment of supreme catharsis that validates the value of the struggle we’ve witnessed. It’s a surreally beautiful moment that crowns a singularly well-acted horror film, the likes of which we don’t witness with any regularity in this genre. Queue up this film some night when you have the patience to truly be taken on a journey.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.