Saturday, May 13, 2017

Movie Review: A Dark Song

I rarely post movie reviews on here, since most Hollywood films about magick are hopelessly clueless when it comes to how it's supposed to work. Either it's this comic-book thing where wizards shoot beams of light all over the place, or something like Harry Potter where the magic is a bunch of fairy tale folklore mixed in with bits and pieces of real occult ideas and terminology. But A Dark Song, a new Irish horror film written and directed by Liam Gavin, at least puts some effort into trying to get it right. That alone is praiseworthy, hence this review.

The film stars Catherine Walker as Sophia Howard, a grieving woman who sets out to perform a fictional version of the Abramelin working. We'll get to that in a moment. It also stars Steve Oram as Joseph Solomon, an experienced magician Sophia hires to help her with the ritual procedure. Much of the film takes place just between the two of them, and both turn in excellent performances. The film manages to be creepy, suspenseful, and at a couple of points genuinely scary, and it accomplishes this without relying on a huge special effects budget or anything like that. The otherwise positive top review on IMDb complains about the low budget, but I have to say, I watch lots of films and I really don't see where spending a ton on effects would have made it much better.

The fact is that when you do real magick you don't see laser lights all over the place, or crackly energy like a plasma ball gone crazy. Magick is about doing the work, day in and day out, with all of that practice leading up to eventual success. The movie gets that completely right, showing the sustained effort and intent required to perform an operation that lasts for months. There's no "Hollywood magick" here, and I found the film better for it. There are a lot of misconceptions that beginning practitioners bring with them, and that sort of "shoot laser light" or "levitate feathers" nonsense is to blame for a lot of it.

So as a film, I enjoyed A Dark Song very much. As for the magick itself, I imagine that how I felt watching parts of the film must be how physicists feel when they watch movie scientists go on about how to solve whatever physics problem is driving the storyline. Much of the exposition is close to the real thing - much closer than in any film I have previously seen. It's refreshing to hear Joseph Solomon talking about how these are "real angels" and "real demons," and that those "people on the Internet" who say the Holy Guardian Angel is your "Higher Self" are just wrong. That's an actual conversation I see all the time. But many of the details of the ritual are misinterpreted, and some are just wrong.

The film also gets the broad strokes of the Abramelin rite correct - that it is an operation taking months, requiring a house with a particular layout, involving extensive purifications and sustained practices, and designed to conjure the Holy Guardian Angel. Beyond that, though, a lot of the little details are just wrong. If you pay attention, you will see that in the film this supposedly European operation employs Chinese elements (Air, Water, Earth, Metal, Wood). There also are several scenes where Chinese or Japanese characters are drawn as part of the procedure. Both of those are out of place.

Also, the whole objective of the rite is portrayed as other than the real thing. In the film, the point of conjuring the Holy Guardian Angel is not the knowledge and conversation, but rather to ask for some sort of supernatural favor (which, apparently, you can only ask for once). I am of the opinion that the Holy Guardian Angel does have a role in practical magick, but the whole point of the knowledge and conversation is so that you can be in contact with the angel on an ongoing basis. It is not done for the sole purpose of making a one-time request.

In terms of theme, if you haven't guessed by now from the main character's name, the film is not just the account of a magical operation but is also a Gnostic allegory. Once Sophia and Solomon are sealed in the house, Solomon becomes a tyrannical taskmaster. He insists that she cook and clean and take care of everything going on in the house. When she makes a mistake, or even when things go wrong, he becomes abusive and violent. He claims that this is necessary for the ritual to succeed, but as is revealed later on, that is not always the case.

Sophia, for her part, puts up with all this because she is determined to succeed at the ritual. And the ritual finally does work, but only once she is out from under Solomon's control and passes through torments inflicted by demons raised by the rite. To into too much more detail is to drift into spoiler territory, and if you really don't care you can read a summary of the plot including the ending here. So in effect, the sealed house could be viewed as imprisonment in the world of matter, Solomon as the Gnostic Demiurge, and Sophia as the human soul in search of gnosis, represented by the Holy Guardian Angel.

That's kind of a surface-level gloss of Gnostic symbolism, too, but as I said above, the film at least comes off as a legitimate attempt to accurately render occultism. I've said for years that it would be hard to do a movie about real magick because it wouldn't be nearly as interesting the Hollywood version - a lot of meditation, tracing figures and vibrating names, reciting prayers, and so forth, and then at some point something unlikely happens that accomplishes the objective of the spell, without any laser beams or lightning or strobes or anything exploding into balls of colored light.

But after seeing this film, I'm going to rethink my position. Maybe it would be possible to create a completely accurate magical film and still have it hold the attention of an audience. A Dark Song gets close enough that it makes such a thing look possible. For those of you in the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society is showing A Dark Song at the St. Anthony Main Theater in Northeast Minneapolis until May 18th. Click the link for showtimes and ticketing information.

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