There is so much about A Dark Song that works…until it doesn’t. And I’m a sucker for British horror flicks, so I am most certainly the target audience for a film like this. I don’t necessarily think anyone is to blame; the filmmaker is doing exactly what he wants to do. I just thought the first two-thirds of this film wrote a check that the final third couldn’t cash. And don’t be fooled – just because IFC Midnight is releasing the film, that doesn’t mean it’s a horror film. A Dark Song is a supernatural drama. Sure, it has mood and tension, but it’s hardly a horror film.
Sophia (Catherine Walker) approaches Joseph (Steve Oram) to help her perform a séance that will allow her to communicate with her deceased son. But this isn’t your mama’s séance: it’s a long, arduous process that takes months to complete. It requires total dedication and unspeakable acts of the dark arts. Joseph does his best to warn Sophia of the process, but she is determined to carry it out. Essentially, A Dark Song is one long séance. We experience the rituals as they happen, and, like the participants, wait on the fruits they might yield. As the story progress, secrets and true motivations are revealed, and that’s where the film slowly starts to unravel and trip over itself, going completely off the rails in Act Three.
We accept that Sophia isn’t being entirely genuine with Joseph the first time. But then it happens again. And again. And by the second time, it’s old hat. Why? Because what she’s hiding – it doesn’t make any sense why she would feel the need to hide it. Not for as long a she does. We accept that Joseph might not be all he proclaims to be, but the film never really answers that question. We never know just how good Joseph is at what he proclaims to be an expert in until the end, and then it seems bizarre because his involvement has “changed”. A Dark Song sets up rules that it follows, but those rules don’t seem to have much weight in the long run.
And that third act. There is a moment when something happens that is exactly what Joseph said would happen. And it does. And it’s ridiculous. Maybe it was supposed to be this major moment of revelation, but I chuckled to myself because it was so out of step with the rest of the film. One moment we’re in The Changeling, the next moment we’re in Caligula. It doesn’t work. Sophia’s revelation and true reason for holding the séance is more rewarding, but even that seems weak considering everything that she and Joseph have experienced. I left thinking, “Really? They went through all of that so she could do something that I’m not sure she wanted to do?” It left me flummoxed. And frustrated. Because the rest of the film deserved better.
I know a lot of people have enjoyed A Dark Song. I did, too, though it might not seem like it. The first two-thirds were so strong that I can’t help but recommend it. And, there are some spectacularly eerie set pieces early on in the film. But that ending. Man, that ending. It didn’t completely ruin the film for me, but it came close. Oh, and I’ll mention the performances really quickly – they are both terrific. Top notch. Unorthodox choices for complicated roles. The performances are not the problem; they’re just guests at the same damned party.