University College Cork, Ireland
Noting the growing number of Irish horror films in 2013, Emma Radley argued that when a national cinema is disrupted with genre films “traditional understandings of representation and meaning (of the national, cinematic, and indeed generic) are transformed and remade”, thus leaving the space for a “rearticulated subject of Irish cinema” (111). Considering this, not only are “traditional” conceptions of Irish National Cinema reconfigured by these films, so too are the lines of generic convention often blurred. This certainly holds true for the horror films that were released in 2016 with (at least partial) funding from the Irish Film Board. These include the eco-horror Without Name (Lorcan Finnegan), the genre-blending emotional rollercoaster I Am Not a Serial Killer (Billy O’Brien) and A Dark Song (Liam Gavin), a horror film that also reads as an allegorical drama. These films follow certain tropes of horror, blending naturalism with the supernatural and tapping into “the deepest unease at the core of human existence” (Prince 3). However, the way that the unease — universal concerns from the environment to aging — at the heart of each film is dealt with results in a hybridisation of its genre. In the case of A Dark Song, it is the horrors of grief that drive the film, but director Liam Gavin grounds these with a “social-realist” approach that marks his film, as he described it in an interview with Scannain, as “elevated genre”.
A Dark Song takes a close look at the grieving process of Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) after the death of her young son, Jack. In the film, Sophia rents a vacant, stately house in the remote Welsh countryside (shot in Wicklow) that has gone into disrepair and hires an occultist, Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to perform an Abramelin invocation with the hope of being able to speak to her dead son once again, or so she claims at the start. This ritual, which in reality takes somewhere between a year and eighteen months to complete, occurs over a period of about eight months in the film, and Gavin gives proper attention to its process. The house is sealed off, with only Sophie and Joseph inside, and this seal cannot be broken until the invocation is complete, with a warning from Joseph that, now that they have begun, “everything has consequences”. Following this, Sophie must have complete faith in Joseph, obeying all his rules, and he must rely on her honesty with him about everything (though neither can really be trusted as Joseph, who also struggles with alcoholism, tricks Sophie, who is holding back her own secrets).
Part of the process is a number of chambers — which can also be read as equating to the five stages of grief — which Sophie must master in order to strengthen the merging of worlds to achieve the ultimate goal, the appearance of a Guardian Angel who can be asked a favour. In the process of mastering these chambers we see Sophie repeatedly fasting, writing scriptures and working at shifting her consciousness, purifying her body and mind through torturous rituals of sleep deprivation, being doused in cold water, drinking blood and remaining still in one place for days on end, even relieving herself in the spot and remaining seated in it. While these scenes, which account for nearly the first two-thirds of the film, are not scary in a traditional horror sense, they are uncomfortable, generating a sense of unease, and reveal the depths of Sophie’s grief and the guilt that accompanies it, made visible through all that she is willing to subject herself to. At this stage in the film, Sophie is very much figuratively haunted by her dead son, who appears in her dreams and whose toy appears to take on a life of its own, falling off tables and going missing — suggesting a more literal haunting of the house to come.
In addition to Sophie’s grief and guilt, her determination to succeed at this ritual shines through. It has become her purpose (as it is revealed that she spent time institutionalised when she was doing nothing in the immediate aftermath of Jack’s death, and now she is doing something about it). It is interesting then, given this determination, that she refuses to complete the chamber of forgiveness, and even opts to drink a glass of Joseph’s blood in lieu of this. Forgiveness arguably goes hand in hand with the final stage of grief, acceptance, in the case that someone or something is at fault. Sophie’s inability to even consider completing this chamber belies the fact that she is nowhere near the end of her grieving process and, as the ritual continues to fail and the house becomes more confined and isolating (shades are often drawn to create a dark atmosphere and we no longer see the outdoors and expansive sky that featured prominently at the start of the film), the two leads lash out at one another with distrust and raw emotion, oscillating the tension and power between the two. As the process (and the characters) begins to break down, we finally learn Sophie’s truth: her son was taken from his daycare three years prior and killed as part of a ritual. Though she believes that those responsible were teenagers messing with the occult, the killers were never found and Sophie plans to ask her Guardian Angel to enact vengeance on them, hoping they will suffer horrible deaths. In a sense, Sophie has become the same as her son’s murderers, turning to ritual and death, further reflecting the guilt she feels in her grieving process. This revelation, and the persistence with the ritual that follows, unleashes the traditional horror elements of the film, with dark spirits emerging in the house — some taking on the voice of Sophie’s son — along with eerie sounds and bloody handprints. In this sense, Sophie is trapped and tortured by her grief, just as she is by the house and occult ritual. Her inability to overcome it results in her horror.
While the film is writer/director Liam Gavin’s feature debut, the leads of this two-hander are no strangers to Irish horror: Walker featured in Dark Touch (Marina de Van, 2013) and Oram in The Canal (Ivan Kavanagh, 2014) (reviewed by Ciara Barrett in Estudios Irlandeses 11). Barrett noted “the film’s cultural dis-location” — a statement also true, to a degree, of A Dark Song. Reflecting Gavin’s own background (he is from North Wales, but has Irish parents) and the film’s funding (principally from Ireland, but with some from Film Cymru Wales), the film hybridises Wales and Ireland (also using a blend of Irish and English actors with accompanying accents) into a remote countryside location, largely removed from culturally specific national or local ties. Noting his own time spent between Ireland and Wales, Gavin focuses on their similarity, rather than anything marking them as different: “the two countries don’t feel like they are different countries” (Murphy). However, despite the nationally-detached feel, Irishness can be read into elements of Sophie’s grieving process in A Dark Song.
The film opens with the text of Psalm 91:11 — “for he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” — written across a black screen, adding a tenor of Catholicism from the start. While the occult ritual that follows wholly breaks from religion, a religious theme runs throughout the film and comes full circle in its conclusion. Sophie and Joseph directly confront the subject of religion, questioning whether or not they have forsaken it, or it them. Sophie’s inability to forgive, and strong desire for vengeance, precludes her from finding true solace in Catholicism, which takes an opposite stance to hers on these matters. While this leads her away from religion and into the practice of dark magic, perhaps reflective of a contemporary crisis of religion and the lessening power of Catholicism in Ireland, the outcome of Sophie’s process once again aligns her with the tenets of the religion. Sophie remains immersed in the horrors of her grief — both figuratively and literally — throughout the film until the moment she utters the words: “I’m sorry”. It is only after she is able to express this, asking for forgiveness from her own guilt (however misplaced it may be), that the spirits tormenting desist and her Guardian Angel appears in a burst of bright light and golden petals — dazzling imagery that removes all sense of horror. While it can still be assumed that the angel has been conjured through the supernatural ritual, it is a being associated with religion and its appearance only after her request for forgiveness alludes to the fact that religious ritual may also be at play here (with Sophie’s suffering at the hands of the Abramelin process standing in for her penitence). What is really responsible for the appearance of this angel? Similarly, when she is finally given the chance to speak with the angel, it is no longer vengeance that Sophie desires, but the ability to forgive. This marks the end of Sophie’s grieving process, her final acceptance of her son’s death and ability to move forward with her life by forgiving his murderers and herself, releasing her drive for revenge. It is this conclusion that fully marks the film as a moral allegory for the process of grief and benefits of forgiveness, again strongly linking the film with principles of Catholicism.
Equally, the ghost-like appearances of Sophie’s son — from his toy to her dreams and the dark spirit’s appropriation of his voice — reflect a possible link with the “ghosts” of Ireland’s past. In The Politics of Irish Memory, Emilie Pine considers the use of ghosts — the past appearing in the present — in Irish drama and film as reflective of “the tension between forgetting and remembering that runs through Irish remembrance culture” (154). In the film, Sophie is trapped by the memories of her son and his death, made manifest through his various apparitions. However, she equally becomes trapped by the house, unable to leave the confines of the seal, and is tortured by it, suffering for the ritual. Interestingly, the house — a country manor that has fallen into disuse — connotes the Anglo-Irish Big Houses that were a trademark of Ireland’s colonial past. While the setting of this manor adds to the gothic horror aesthetic of the film — with spacious, high-ceilinged shadowy rooms lit by candles — it also evokes this memory of colonisation in post-colonial Ireland, with the house itself acting as a material “ghost” of the past. In this way, while Sophie is haunted by her son and the house more literally as a result, the manor can also represent a more figurative haunting of Irish memory and the “tension between forgetting and remembering” that Pine discusses. Just as Sophie struggles to come to terms with her ghosts, ultimately moving forward with a resolution of forgiveness, so too has Ireland had to come to terms with its own historical traumas.
A Dark Song blurs lines — the supernatural with realism, black magic with religion — and, in doing so, also blurs the lines of genre, resulting in an allegorical film that is a hybrid of horror and drama. Sophie’s difficult grieving process, which drives the film, is acted out through the process of the Abramelin ritual, manifesting the film’s horror and forcing the viewers to struggle alongside Sophie, following in close, often uncomfortable, detail her suffering and fluctuating emotion before reaching the pinnacle of acceptance and forgiveness. While the supernatural elements of the ritual certainly move the film into horror, the very real horrors of grief are also heavily present throughout this film and can be universally recognised. This universality, and the film’s overall lack of national (or local) cultural specificity tying it closely to a particular place, means that A Dark Song will appeal to international audiences. However, this does not mean that culturally specific elements cannot be perceived by local audiences — as in the reading of the film with particular attention to Catholicism and the manor house in an Irish context. After all, the ghosts that haunt us in horror films often reflect the ghosts of memory that figuratively haunt us, individually or nationally.
Barrett, Ciara. 2015. “The Canal (Ivan Kavanagh 2014).” Estudios Irlandeses, 11. 282-284.
Murphy, Niall. 2016. “Interview: Scannain Talks A Dark Song with director Liam Gavin.” Scannain, 4 (July) http://scannain.com/interview/a-dark-song-interview/ [retrieved: 15/02/2017]
Pine, Emilie. 2011. The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Prince, Stephen (ed). 2004. The Horror Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Radley, Emma. 2013. “Violent Transpositions: The Disturbing ‘Appearance’ of the Irish Horror Film.” Viewpoints: Theoretical Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts. Eds. Claire Bracken and Emma Radley. Cork: Cork University Press. 109-123.