The contrast between them could not be more marked. Sophia Howard is a former religious education teacher for whom money is no object, short to the point of rudeness with the estate agent who shows her the remote Welsh farmhouse and, grudgingly satisfied that it meets her needs, handing over great wads of cash in order to secure her privacy, no questions asked.
In his anorak and jeans and stuffing his face with chips in the grubby cafe where they meet, Joseph Solomon makes no attempt to modify his behaviour in order to facilitate their arrangement. He scoffs at Sophia when says she has researched others of a similar skill set, and while no reason is given why she has chosen to deal with Joseph it is certainly not for his humble charm.
An alcoholic who is using the retreat to dry out, from the start Joseph establishes control and continues to push Sophia to see just how far his hold goes, calling her a “stupid posh girl” and refusing to cooperate, demanding not only substantial immediate payment but that he be driven back to the train station by Sophia, threatening to leave until she confesses the real reason she has engaged his services. When she said it was for love it was only a half truth; what was unspoken was that the love was for her dead child with whom she desperately wishes to commune.
Having struggled through Storm Doris for the Scottish premiere of his directorial debut A Dark Song on the evening of Friday 23rd February, a delayed twelve hour train journey which saw him arrive at the Glasgow Film Theatre just in time for the post-screening question and answer session, it was not without cause that festival co-director Allison Gardner named the intrepid Liam Gavin “guest of the year” at the encore screening the following morning.
Written by Gavin, a former storyboard artist whose previous shorts have all dealt with subject matter far from jovial, A Dark Song is principally a confined two hander between Sightseers‘ Steve Oram and Dark Touch‘s Catherine Walker, the other presence being the rambling farmhouse which they are unable to leave until the ritual is successful and the assorted noises off which they have summoned, dogs barking in the night, a baby crying, scratchings and bangings and whispers just beyond the cusp of perception.
The house sealed by a circle of salt, Joseph becomes an aggressive and demeaning guide through the precise and unforgiving challenges of form and endurance which Sophia must perform, and despite the humiliation she cannot leave or else she loses it all, a brutal dissection of an abusive relationship where she is forced to stay for the sake of a child already dead. “Would you do black magic?” she asks. “There’s no point in going to the fairground if you don’t go on any of the rides,” he responds.
The allnighter presided over by Christopher Lee as the Duc de Richleau of The Devil Rides Out as nothing by comparison to what Joseph expects, there are obvious similarities to the recent The Other Side of the Door but A Dark Song is the superior film in every way, an atmospheric nightmare leavened only momentarily by a flash of light or the sight of a flower bud or Steve Oram dressed in a muumuu.
With ominous rumbles and chafing strings like the opening of Radiohead’s Burn the Witch gone wrong from composer Ray Harman, cinematographer Cathal Watters finds patterns in shadows and shapes in the flickering candlelight as the elaborate pentagrams and sigils and summoning circles unfold across the floorboards, but as the doors between worlds are unlocked it becomes apparent that Sophia has lied about her intentions, and A Dark Song is one whose relentless melody will lodge grimly in the memory.