I wish there were more overlap between horror film fans and occultists when it comes to giving reviews of spooky movies with strong occult themes. Since Nature abhors a vacuum, I’ll gladly step right in here, folks! While the film I’m reviewing, A Dark Song, came out in 2016 (to much critical acclaim, a feat all the more striking when you consider that this film serves as the directorial debut for Ireland’s Liam Gavin), and is thus not “new,” it is new to me and I only heard of it in the past week because of the wonderfully astute targeted marketing engine that drives Netflix! A Dark Song is a visually lush (absolutely captivating cinematography of Ireland’s brooding soulscapes), suspenseful, taut film (1 hour, 40 minutes long) with stellar acting performances and an unforgettable ending. It’s something that everyone with ceremonial magic ritual experience ought to see: at its core, we’re treated to a shamanic Underworld journey that vindicates so-called “Low” Magic. (If you’re expecting me to spell “magic” with a “k” tacked on at the end, sorry not sorry to disappoint because this is my editorial style!)
As a Witch and Priestess, I’ve often found the long-standing classification of Western magic into camps of “high” (i.e., theurgy) and “low” (Goetic evocation) to be meaningless from a practical standpoint but even somewhat personally offensive. The accusations I’ve endured in the past during meetings in my Mother Lodge from Masonic Brethren of trafficking with “lower vibrational” energies or entities in my personal Witchcraft workings outside of Lodge were definitely lobbed from stances of moral high horses and upper-middle-class economic privilege. Noses were actually crinkled at me in thorough distaste posing as intellectual inquiry. Shouldn’t I know better? I’d perfunctorily reply with a statement wrought from the magical and ritual training I’d gleaned from my Coven a few years prior. There are two types of magic, indeed, but not “high” and “low”: more like “effective” and “ineffective.” And I was solely concerned with refining my “Rough Ashlar” to make myself a more potent spiritual vessel of effecting the former.
“Are your magical operations done outside of our gatherings effective or not? If not, why not?” my former Gardnerian High Priestess, the late Donna Cole Schultz of Chicago’s Temple of the Sacred Stones, asked me in 2001. I’d admitted that my working to land a new job at the time wasn’t giving me the desired result and nearly two lunations had passed. “Then how are you getting in your own way? It starts with belief. You can always tell what core beliefs a person holds by what life experiences he or she is getting as a result,” she’d say. (The best summation of The Law of Attraction I’d ever heard.)
The process of shifting magical workings from ineffective to producing effective results is definitely an inside job; to use the subtitle of my favorite occult author and contemporary magician, Lon Milo DuQuette, It’s All in Your Head…You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is. All of these ideas came rushing back at me in full force this past week as I watched the 2016 film written and directed by Liam Gavin, A Dark Song. It is, quite simply, the most astonishing cinematic treatise I’ve ever come across that deftly explores the psychological realities and spiritual alchemy that result from successfully performing a working. To get there, however, you’ve got to walk the Crooked Path and come to terms with your answer to the question of how low (magic) will you go?
“How Much Do You Want It?”
While shot on location in Ireland, the narrative of the film is set in a desolate Welsh manor, which is rented by a woman, symbolically named Sophia (played by Irish actress Catherine Walker). She hires (at a whopping 80K Pounds!) an occultist named Joseph Solomon (played by Steve Oram) to help her perform a months-long magical working they refer to as the Abramelin (an allusion to a fifteenth-century grimoire that has come to be known in the English-speaking world as The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage). Sophia assures a cynical, boorish, alcoholic Mr. Solomon (as he instructs her to call him throughout the film) that she has begun to undergo all the necessary requirements of purification in order to perform the magical rite, with three weeks of rigorous fasting and abstinence from sex and booze already under her belt as the story gets underway.
In their introduction to one another, Mr. Solomon reveals that he has performed the Abramelin three times before: it worked once but failed on the other two occasions he performed it. It’s a grueling ritual that will take months to accomplish, and he needs to know that Sophia is doing it for the right reasons. When he asks her about her ritual intent, she initially lies to both Mr. Solomon and the audience by stating that she wants to gain the love interest of a specific person. Mr. Solomon erupts in a rage (the first of many such disturbingly violent outbursts): “You stupid little posh girls! Abramelin procedure to force love. It’s like getting Titian to decorate a cake!”
Sophia then reveals what we are led to believe is the real reason she wants to perform the rite: her seven-year-old son has died and she desperately wants to make contact with his spirit. “He was taken from me and it was my fault,” she sullenly says. Strangely, Mr. Solomon doesn’t interrogate her about what exactly happened. Instead, his eyes light up because he can now approve of her ritual intention: “That might be worth something getting up in the morning for,” he says, adding, “How much do you want it?”
Desire has to be the foundation of any magical undertaking. If there is one part of your being that is not wholly devoted to the cause, if there is any level of second-guessing or self-doubt, the intended results will not manifest. In addition to desire, it helps, as Lon Milo DuQuette articulates in his outstanding little book, Low Magick, to arm yourself with a “detached attitude of fearlessness, determination, and an unshakeable passion for enlightenment” (2010, p.7). Held by that yardstick, we as viewers see how both Catherine and her occult mentor Mr. Solomon fall horribly short. And curiously, while they seem at first glance to be dramatic foils for one another, they’re actually quite similar to one another energetically in terms of impurity, blindness, and selfishness. This is something Mr. Solomon overtly acknowledges towards the film’s climax: “You’re just like me,” he tells Sophia. “Maybe worse.”
“We’re Doing Something Much Darker”: Accurately Capturing the Numinosity and Eeriness of a Magical Working
After agreeing to the appallingly misogynistic “ground rules” for their life together (with Sophia doing all the cooking and cleaning) once they are ceremonially sealed inside the vast stone manor, with oaths sworn to not venture outdoors for any reason, not even for a medical crisis (Mr. Solomon traces a massive salt circle around the perimeter of the house), Mr. Solomon briefs Sophia on the demanding nature of the Abramelin rite. “This is a serious undertakin’. It’s not astral projection or runes,” he declares. “This is real stuff we’re playing with. Real angels. Real demons.” He goes on to share his opinion that popularly held views of entities encountered in magical rituals being no more than pure mental constructs is a bunch of “psychobabble bollocks.”
“We’re doing something much darker,” he says ominously.
The strength of the film for anyone who has ever engaged in a magical working of this level of exactitude and depth is how accurately it captures the sense of Otherworldly eeriness, even terror, of seeing the first stirrings that Magic Is Afoot. Taking the form of omens and inexplicable events—the eerie barking of a dog at night in a remote valley not populated by other homes, doors in the house opening on their own, sounds of whispering voices in other rooms, a bird slamming into the kitchen window as Sophia and Mr. Solomon discuss the ritual after performing its initial sequences of magic squares and evocations in the main room of the house—the evidence begins to mount that the Work has begun and Powers are responding. The goal of the ritual is to summon Sophia’s Guardian Angel, a Being that will grant both her and Mr. Solomon exactly what it is they’re petitioning for. As stated earlier, Sophia has convinced us that she wants to be able to contact her dead son; Mr. Solomon reveals to Sophia that his goal is to become invisible by disappearing from the world. “I want some quiet away from the howl,” he says.
Be careful what you wish for.
The most curious form of evidence that the rite is taking effect is that a little demonic-looking action figure (a goblin bearing two clubs) that used to belong to Jack, Sophia’s dead son, seems to have powers of mobility fueled by tricksterishness at best or a sinister intelligence at worst. The little toy disappears from Sophia’s room and winds up interacting with her at unexpected times and places, luring her into a downward spiral of madness. She dreams poignant things also—curiously, Mr. Solomon is quick to dismiss the content of her dreams as irrelevant, but we as the audience attuned to the principle of Dramatic Irony know better—such as the sight of little Jack holding the hand of “a weird old woman” on a dreadful beach that is littered with human corpses.
At a very telling point in the next stage of performing the ritual, Mr. Solomon asks Sophia to come to terms with her inner demons, to voice them to him. It’s only fair because by this point, we all know how horribly flawed in character the alcoholic, physically and verbally abusive, sexually exploitative and misogynistic, bombastic and grandiose Mr. Solomon is. (I’ve been wondering if Liam Gavin wrote his character in part as a parody of Aleister Crowley.) His request sounds simple enough: he asks her to name the people she needs to forgive.
“I don’t do forgiveness,” comes the unexpectedly gruff reply from Sophia. She asks that Mr. Solomon “work around” her unwillingness to forgive. “Yeah, but it’ll make life hard,” he announces. And then without delay he cuts his left forearm and presents a glass of his blood to Sophia to drink. “It’s a blood sacrifice. This is your choice,” he starkly says. Sophia forces herself, gagging, to drink it all down with Mr. Solomon shouting at her to do so before the blood congeals. She is exhausted from sleep deprivation and fasting at this point. What is objectively real? What isn’t? We see how she can’t discern for herself anymore, and the results are terrifying.
“Would you do black magic?” she asks an equally exhausted Mr. Solomon as they sit in the main room with the ritual circles drawn onto the floor.
“There’s no point in going to the fairground if you can’t go on any of the fucking rides,” he replies unhesitatingly.
“Don’t cross the line—we’ll be fucked! Cross the line, we’ll be stuck here forever.”
Tensions mount between Sophia and Mr. Solomon and she proves to the audience that she is as capable of violent explosions as he is. She demands to know, however many days or weeks pass by in the ritual’s progression, why she isn’t getting the result she wants of seeing her Guardian Angel in the seventh circle. She threatens to make a dramatic exit from the house but is stopped at the threshold by Mr. Solomon. “We’ll keep pushin’. Seal the seventh chamber. Then we should really light up,” he assures her.
But Sophia hasn’t been completely forthcoming in the mysterious circumstances surrounding her son’s death. When she furnishes the shocking detail that little Jack was supposedly killed by occultists (“teenagers dabbling in the occult”) during a ritual and the real reason she wants to perform the Abramelin rite is to exact her revenge on the killers, Mr. Solomon matches her rage with another explosive outburst of his own. “You stupid, fucking cow! I don’t want you to be virtuous; I want you to be driven! You’re doing this for me: you’re the focus! You’re the conduit!”
Horrifyingly, he performs a second purification ritual on her that consists of drowning her in the bathtub. “Let her touch the Void, the Nothin’,” he prays. He performs CPR and brings Sophia back from death. “You are now one with the rite, one with your intentions, pure. You’ll get your vengeance,” he hollowly but prophetically announces.
While closed off in her bedroom, Sophia receives visitations from a demonic entity pretending to be little Jack, asking to be let in. She refuses to open the door. He tries to emotionally manipulate her, frightening her with the notion that the spectral dog he is trapped with in the spirit world is trying to hurt him, along with other nefarious beings. “You don’t know what this is. You don’t understand yet,” Jack pines in his little child voice.
“This Is the Price of Our Rage”—SPOILER ALERT
During a second outburst directed at Mr. Solomon because of her perceived failure of the rite, Sophia stabs Mr. Solomon in the gut (the fight takes place in the kitchen), seemingly by accident because of where he was standing in proximity to a kitchen knife when she shoves him. Knowing that the threshold warding the house cannot be crossed, he doggedly decides to resume the progression of the ritual with Sophia, even though it will cost him his life. “This is the price of our rage,” he says wearily. The demonic activity in the house escalates. A couple of days after Mr. Solomon’s death, Sophia encounters little Jack’s goblin/demon action figure standing in the middle of the hallway; perturbed, she stoops to scoop it up…and upon standing up again she is instantly thwocked on the head by an alarming-looking gangly male demon with a long beard. (Tellingly, he wields a club made out of human femur bones, which is exactly like one of the clubs held by the action figure.) Other demons join him, and we see a hapless Sophia being dragged across the floor and down the basement steps, where every horror film visual trope of basement-as-hellscape comes roaring to the forefront of our collective consciousness, exploding onto the screen.
While I don’t know for sure if writer/director Liam Gavin is familiar with American artist Wayne Barlowe’s stunning homage to the demonic in his Inferno, the visual aesthetic of the demons in this film definitely made me think of a Barlowian influence.
Horrifyingly but not unexpectedly, the demons set out to torture Sophia. One brings along a very crude clipping tool and they wrench off the ring finger of her left hand. Bloodied and howling, she breaks free of her restraints and runs towards the exit from the basement: the stairs are illuminated by a brilliant white light but as Sophia reaches for them, the demons grab her from behind. It’s an Eight of Swords moment. How can Sophia unbind herself?
“I’m so sorry,” comes the volley of magic words from Sophia’s lips. She pours forth a litany of apologies addressed to her son Jack, to herself, and to her Guardian Angel.
Apologists for Christian doctrine would love what ensues, as it meets their criterion for the Divinely bestowed Gift of Grace: Sophia the sinner, Sophia the wallower in guilt and shame, Sophia bested by her demons, is suddenly given the Grace to ascend from her hell and walk into the white heat of the Divine Light. She ascends to the main room of the house where the seventh chamber is sealed, and sitting squarely within it and taking up the space of the entire room is her magnificent, colossal Guardian Angel, hunkering down with Its armor and sword pointed to the floor.
“So beautiful,” Sophia says in awe. “I’m so sorry,” she continues, and then remembers that her Angel is here to grant her request. “The favor I want is…the favor I want is the power to forgive.”
The Angel smiles and says something to her we’re not privy to in their secret conversation.
Surely, Mr. Solomon’s wish of “disappearing from the world” was fulfilled too and we watch Sophia dispose of his body in the massive pond in front of the estate. The scene evokes an adult full-immersion baptism ceremony, with both of them being spiritually cleansed and renewed, echoing prayers Sophia was forced to recite at the outset of the Abramelin ritual: “And may all my transgressions be washed.” We now know that they have been washed from her. Granted the ability to forgive and cleansed of all past transgressions, she drives away from the isolated manor and rejoins the world. An emotionally satisfying and uplifting way to end the movie.
The Power of Low Magic
I’m sure there are occultists who would watch A Dark Song and happily point out inaccuracies/discrepancies from The Book of Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage in terms of the actual sigils, magic squares, etc., depicted, thereby lessening the film’s impact. I’m not one of those people. For me, the film absolutely hits the proverbial nail on its head by providing a case study of the personal transformation magical workings ought to effect. And it renders the distinction between “high” and “low” magic arbitrary and meaningless in the process, which I really like. As Lon Milo DuQuette states:
I’ve often said that the only thing I can change with magick is myself. I believe that. Whatever changes I wish to effect with magick, the first and only thing that will be directly changed by my magical operation will be me. Once I am changed, then the new changed me will then somehow affect or attract the desired object of my operation. However, we seldom know in advanced what changes we’ll need to undergo to become that new person. … Funny thing about demons. If you’re a Solomon, they made wonderful employees. But if you’re not, they make terrible bosses. (Low Magick, pp.27-28)
Those who have ears, let them hear.
DuQuette, Lon Milo. Low Magick: It’s All in Your Head… You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2010.