Fantastic Fest Review: A Dark Song

Sorcery and loss meld in stunning debut

Magic as call and response with the universe in fear-drenched character study A Dark Song

Magic is not science. It is not parlor tricks. It is not dancing widdershins around the cemetery at midnight. In A Dark Song, the revelatory debut feature from writer/director Liam Gavin, it is the dark pumping blood of the universe, a dangerous negotiation with implacable near-incomprehensible powers of light and dark.

When Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) and Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram, best known for Ben Wheatley's Sightseers) first meet, it could be mistaken for an awkward first coffee date. Instead, it is the beginning of a sorcerous compact. Sophia wants to talk with her dead son, and Joseph is the magician that can open that door. But this is not a minor task. This is six months sealed within a Welsh mansion, with Howard as the rebellious pupil to Solomon's jaded, brutal necromancer.

This is not the traditional depiction of magic as a Bewitched-style super power. And if you think the televised version of John Constantine is the gritty alternative, you're in a for a rude awakening (although comic fans may recognize the sense of cosmic nihilism of Garth Ennis' early Nineties Hellblazer run). This is a character study of driven, dangerous people, attempting to break the rules of the universe.

It is a portrait of a mother's wounded and slow-burning quest for vengeance, elegantly and tragically caught by Walker. It is matched by Oram's stunning portrayal of the wizard as surly guardian, trying to keep his apprentice from jabbing her fingers in the machinery of the arcane. As he bluntly explains, most people are damned: What they risk is far worse.

Gavin builds the depth subtly, as seemingly simple and increasingly ornate as the chalk patterns that Howard and Solomon inscribe with academic preciseness. Ray Harman's clanging, tribal score reinforces that this is ritual as repetition, a call-and-response with the forces beyond the veil.

Strip away the magick (and Gavin walks a subtle line as to whether any of this is real or not), and what remains is a shadow-drenched story of self-destructive obsession. His fearsome telling of that story is an incredible testament to the heart-chilling terror that subtlety and implication brings.


A Dark Song screens again Monday Sept. 26, 11:15pm.

Fantastic Fest 2016 runs Sept. 22-29 at the Alamo South Lamar. Tickets and info at www.fantasticfest.com, and follow our ongoing coverage at austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest.

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Alamo South Lamar, Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2016, A Dark Song

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