Sometimes it isn’t the house that’s haunted; it’s the people inside. That’s certainly the case for “A Dark Song;” in writer-director Liam Gavin’s debut, a woman is so grief-stricken that she subjects herself to what might be the most arduous, drawn-out séance ever captured onscreen. Called the Ambramelin, this obscure ceremony is almost as stressful to observe as it is to enact — Gavin wants us to feel the mental, physical, and spiritual toll it takes on those desperate enough to invoke it.
Intially it’s unclear exactly what the Ambramelin might be, but it’s clear the prep involves much more than digging out the Ouija board. In anticipation, Sophia (Catherine Walker) spent nearly half a year abstaining from all sex and following a strict diet. Lately she’s only been allowed to eat between dusk and dawn; for the next few days, she’ll fast entirely.
Soon we learn that Sophia is attempting to contact her dead child, although the circumstances of his death remain opaque. That revelation is what persuaded a reluctant and deeply unpleasant spiritualist named Joseph (Steve Oram) to take up her cause; an offer of £80,000 apparently wasn’t enough.
Initially, Joseph is as skeptical about the prospect of communing with spirits as viewers might be. “I’ve done this three times,” he tells Sophia. “Once it worked, twice it didn’t.” As he pours a salt border around the remote house she’s rented in Wales, he informs his employer that there’s no turning back now.
Séances are rarely given such serious treatment on film. (For what it’s worth, the invention of the Abramelin and its demand for intricate, long-term preparation is credited to 14th-century Egyptian magician Abra-Melin.) It makes sense that if there could be a kind of pact between the dead and the living, it wouldn’t be taken lightly. Like a binding contract, the Abramelin must be carried out by someone of sound body and mind — a tricky proposition, given that the bereaved would be a prime target audience. Taking place in stages over six days and demanding an ascetic routine that initially includes the denial of food and water, the process seals off the secluded country estate from the outside world in more ways than one.
“A Dark Song” attempts to carve out a space for itself in the space between belief and doubt, superstition and knowledge. “Science describes the least of things,” Joseph says. “The least of what something is.” Oram makes this figure as detestable as he is knowledgeable, a last-resort guide who cares not for Sophia’s plight. His allegiances are to the Abramelin and himself, not necessarily in that order.
Like most films that gesture toward the supernatural, “A Dark Song” fares better at raising questions than answers. Hearing strange noises emanating from other rooms (if not other dimensions) is almost always more terrifying than seeing what’s actually causing the ruckus.
Whether this is consistent with its own logic remains something of a mystery, given how much of his occult knowledge Joseph keeps on a need-to-know basis. As “A Dark Song” builds toward its crescendo, individual notes matter less than the dissonant composition they come together to form. The effect is somewhere between a Gregorian chant and a sunn O))) song, as unsettling as it is compelling.