Anatomy of a First Time Director: A Dark Song

Anatomy of a First Time Director: A Dark Song

In episode 12 of our Anatomy of Horror series, we explore Liam Gavin’s 2016 debut A Dark Song.

A Dark Song

A grieving, yet determined mother convinces an angry, alcoholic man to live with her in a dilapidated mansion hours away from humanity. This man specializes in practices dealing with the occult. Isolated in the countryside, the two lock themselves away as the woman is put through a long series of physically and emotionally taxing rituals for one singular reason; so that she may once again speak with her departed son. When the extended ceremony takes longer than anticipated, both of their intentions are put into question.

Though not perfect, A Dark Song introduces to the genre something wholly original. Two people alone in a house they are unable to escape is a popular trope in horror, but Gavin takes this idea and flips it on its head. The characters in ADS are not trapped by some benevolent spirit, but by their own device. Sophia is willing to put her body, sanity and soul at hazard in order to contact the other side. Joseph, Sophia’s conduit, is more than willing to push her to her breaking point if she is indeed serious about contacting another world. However, this other world that Sophia is opening herself to is a place she couldn’t possibly fathom at the beginning of her journey.

Liam Gavin Debut

There’s a lot to like about this film. For one, there is nothing really like it, not anything that deals exactly with this subject matter in the way that it does. It feels real – lived in. It’s something that either Liam Gavin has a deep interest in or at least did a lot of research on, and it is handled with care. Apparently, the majik and rituals used in the film are, in fact, authentic. This element alone increases the film’s verisimilitude, making us truly believe we are witnessing two people detaching themselves from the laws and reality of our physical world.

A Dark Song is a personal film. Many horror films have a social commentary, but this film pertains more to one’s own psychology and how we, as individuals, process pain. The best way to sum up the implicit meaning of A Dark Song is an old saying that goes something to the effect of “holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die from it.” We, as a species tend to punish ourselves over and over without end regarding things out of our control. In the world of A Dark Song we focus on two characters that have so much pain caused by loss that it has turned them against the world and forced them into isolation.

Anatomy of Horror Series Episode 12

In episode 12, we examine Liam Gavin’s film language. While, the bulk of the film tells the tale of a talented filmmaker coming into his own, we focus in on a scene that shows the touch of a seasoned director. Late in the second act, we find Sophia alone, studying from a book of spells. Hunkered down within the soft glow of candles against the darkness of the room, she soon realizes she is not alone.

Shot By Shot

Here is our master shot – wide angle, deep focus. Like the paintings of the Neo Classical as well as the Baroque era, Sophia is shrouded in darkness with ample head space. It appears as though she is being crushed by the darkness but completely unaware. We are far enough away to be objective, however, we are facing Sophia, making the shot more subjective.

The sound of pressure upon old furniture alerts Sophia to the fact that something is amiss. This is from Sophia’s point of view and, like the master shot, is at a wide angle with deep focus to match. Gavin and DOP Cathal Watters use low key lighting throughout the entirety of the film, but until now have not used the darkness as a character, and this is why. It’s too dark to make anything out, but both we and Sophia know something lurks within the dark.

We go back to the master shot, and the effect of Sophia looking up and out enhances the subjectivity of the scene, and therefore, ratchets up the tension. This is a simple, yet effective pattern. Two wide, static shots, but a lot is happening in them.

Now we know for sure there is someone, or something sitting on the chair.

Breaking the Pattern

With new information, we break the pattern, if only so slightly. We are now in a medium shot and slowly moving in(dolly shot) on Sophia. Since we got the information we needed, Gavin knows this is when you get closer. The tension lies in the slow release. We spend ample time focusing on Sophia’s reaction – as much if not more so than what she is staring at.

To match our new pattern, we focus in on this shadowy character smoking a cigarette. Like the shot before, we are in a medium shot and focusing in on this shadowy character. This pulls us deeper into the character of Sophia by looking closer at this shadow.

We break the pattern again by getting even closer. The focus is shallow, really emphasizing the importance of Sophia’s performance and furthering our experience into Sophia’s reality. Like the previous pattern, we slowly move in – closer and closer.

For balance, we match Sophia’s close up with a close up of the shadow.

Back to the Master Shot

We break that pattern by going back to the original master shot. This not only resets the intensity of the scene, but it gives Sophia room to move. The shot, and entire scene, go from completely static to a slight tilt and pan. Again, Sophia moves closer into the subjective by walking toward the shot.

Here we finally have both Sophia and the shadow in the same shot. The shot is handheld and unsteady. We are behind Sophia, but the focus is tight on the chair. This shot gives the sensation as if we were hiding behind Sophia while also digesting her point of view.

And here is the answer to the previous shot and a new pattern. We stay with Sophia to keep the scene balanced between what she is looking at and her response. Never breaking into the objective shot only adds intensity since we never get a break from being inside the action.

Beginning of a Promising Career

By making such a personal film, Liam Gavin really shines when filming the subjective. It is obvious he has talent as well as a penchant for creating original material, and therefore redefining a genre. Gavin recently directed 2 episodes of Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, and with any luck, we’ll get to see what he comes up with next.


Also Read:

Anatomy of an Auteur: The Devil’s Backbone

The Lighthouse article by Sean M. Sanford


Brian Robert Oliver
I love horror films. From time to time I'll make a short horror film or I might write about something horror related.
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