A lot of the reason why we’re experiencing such a rich indie horror boom in recent years is that there’s a concrete methodology to producing a solid, inexpensive horror film that can, in turn, make a tidy, near-guaranteed profit. Small scale horror scenarios confined to cheap, insular locations with intimate, no-name casts are like little assembly line machines with a set-in-stone order to how they can deliver the most immediate effect while keeping overhead in check. What’s so striking about the Irish indie A Dark Song is how this stick-to-the-basics reliance on horror filmmaking method & process is reflected in its own plot. As we watch A Dark Song’s two main players attempt to summon dark spirits in a regimented, by-the-books ritual, it’s easy to see their religious dedication to process & tradition reflected in the production of the film itself, which attempts to summon a dark spirit (and modest profit) of its own through admirably limited means. Indie horror filmmaking is itself a kind of regimented, traditionalist ritual that doesn’t always heed results, but when it works it’s (dark) magic.
A grieving mother turns to a self-taught occultist for help in staging a ritual that will aid in the process of coming to terms with her young son’s death by putting her in contact with literal demons & angels. The pair are locked away from the rest of the world in an old house for months, where they prepare for the Kaballist ritual as if preparing for battle. It’s at first difficult to take the occultist at all seriously as he switches his garb from bucket hats to ceremonial robes, but he apparently has extensive experience & hands-on research related to the task at hand. The mismatched pair purify their bodies by abstaining from food, sex, and alcohol. They draw geometric chalk lines on the floorboards in various rooms and recite prayers meant to “unshackle the house from the rest of the world” &”push off into the void.” There’s an obvious, meticulous method to this regimen, one the occultist enforces like a drill sergeant as he berates the grieving mother/paying customer in violent, overly macho bursts. Of course, his dedication to the rules of the ritual eventually do pay off in a spectacular supernatural breakthrough; there wouldn’t be much of a movie if it didn’t. Still, he often comes across as an abusive ass and the mother only puts up with his self-aggrandizing behavior because she’s as desperate to see the ritual’s result as the audience is.
I felt slightly let down by the climax & fallout of A Dark Song‘s conclusion, but it’s difficult to imagine a payoff for a movie this small-scale that could satisfy what the build-up promises to deliver. What’s odd is that the payoff almost doesn’t even matter, because the build-up of the meticulously-executed ritual is so satisfying in its own right (rite?). In the zeitgeist of modern indie horror this one lands somewhere between the aesthetics of Baskin & I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, yet exceeds both titles in quality & overall effect because of its dedication to small-scale methodology. There’s something psychologically satisfying about watching two insignificant players follow a meticulous recipe for something much bigger than them and then reap the supernaturally outsized rewards for their troubles. I love the way that same dedication to precise regimen can be seen reflected in the filmmaking style that produced it. A Dark Song is a kind of time-tested horror movie alchemy that turns a small scale drama about two broken people alone in a house together into something much larger than its limited means. The movie itself is a kind of dark magic incantation in that way.