'A Dark Song' Makes Occult Magic Scary (And Human) Again [Fantastic Fest Review]

If your average horror movie is an indication, the occult is a piece of cake. Grab a dusty old tome from your local library, pick up a Ouija board, light a candle or two and voila! You're ready to open a portal, summon a demon, or cleanse a house of a vengeful spirit. Genre movies have a habit of making magic look easy and convenient. Either anyone can do it, or an exposition-spouting expert is just a quick phone call away.

A Dark Song isn't that kind of movie. Writer/director Liam Gavin has made a movie where black magic isn't just dangerous and a good way endanger your soul – it's also really, really difficult and it takes a long time. Here is a movie about a single dark ritual that takes place over the course of six months.

Set almost entirely in an isolated Welsh country home, A Dark Song follows Sophia (Catherine Walker) as she hires a bitter and anti-social occultist named Joseph (Steve Oram) to assist her in a dangerous black magic ritual that, if successful, will grant them their heart's desire. Joseph lays every card on the table: once the house is in encircled in salt and the ritual has begun, they cannot leave under any circumstance. They will endure physical and mental suffering. They will fast and pray and draw meticulous symbols in chalk. They will slowly find themselves out of step with reality as various other planes of existence bleed into theirs, bringing all kinds of unwelcome guests. And most importantly, Sophia and Joseph will have to learn to live with each other — a task easier said than done for a woman with more than a few dark secrets and a man who simply doesn't enjoy the company of other humans.

The power of A Dark Song stems from Gavin's meticulous control over pace and tone. He takes his sweet time easing the characters into the story, with a first act dedicated to setting up the rules and delivering warnings about what we can expect. From there, the second act is an agonizing and stressful descent into mystery, as both characters struggle with the toll the ritual is taking on their lives. But this is a slow burn that truly ignites in the third act, delivering all a hellish and deeply unsettling payoff. This is a suffocating and claustrophobic movie where time is flexible and the rules of our world slowly dissipate, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the characters on screen. We were warned. They were warned. Everyone asked for this.

Like any movie with a skeleton crew of a cast and a single location, this is a film that lives or dies based on the strength of its actors and Walker and Oram do not disappoint. Oram (who you may remember as the serial murderer with the amazing beard in Sightseers) has the flashier part, but he refuses to play Joseph as a cartoon character. Instead, he makes this angry occultist with his wild speeches about magic, unsettling emotional outbursts, and often wild wardrobe into a real guy whose disposition is the result of unseen mental scars. As the film goes on and the layers peel away, this initially unlikable guy reveals his damage and breaks our heart.

Walker has the tougher gig. She's the audience avatar, the one who has to have everything explained to her, but she's also hiding the truth about her past. Sophia is an enigma to us and to Joseph, someone who guides us into this story while actively deceiving us. It's a tricky performance and Walker avoids the pitfall of making Sophia a conniving liar – she's just painfully human.

A Dark Song is a strong debut for Liam Gavin and it's a breath of fresh air for occult movies in general. The film ultimately feels like a hybrid between Steven Soderbergh (a fascination with a specific process and the kind of professionals who can pull said process off) and James Wan (scary things in a creepy house make you wet your pants). It's an utterly unique film that uses its slow pace to lay the dread on thick and and build its characters so it can turn around and tear everything down in the homestretch. And the ending, which will surely prove divisive, is an audacious choice for a genre so often built on nihilism. A Dark Song may be a hard-edged and occasionally difficult movie, but it has soul./Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10