A Spell to Ward off the Darkness review: a too-dreamy search for the spiritual

Film Title: A Spell to Ward Off Darkness

Director: Ben Rivers , Ben Russell

Starring: Robert Aiki , Aubrey Lowe

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 98 min

Fri, Sep 12, 2014, 00:00


The beautifully titled A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness marks a collaboration between three fascinating artists: hypno-documentarian Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea), ethnographer Ben Russell (Workers Leaving the Factory, 2009) and doom-metal master Lichens (aka Robert AA Lowe).

In theory, the film forms an “inquiry into the possibilities of a spiritual existence within an increasingly secular western culture”. In practice, three very disparate films emerge, linked only by the presence of Lowe.

An opening segment chronicles life in an Estonian commune, a place where children frolic freely and grown-ups recall a sauna-based group fingering session that sounds awfully like a more cosy variation of the Human Centipede series. A second transcendentalist chapter sees Lowe playing Walden in the woods. Finally, we cut to extensive footage from a black metal concert.

There are, certainly, some interesting connections to be made between natural rhythms and the stonier end of the metal continuum. There is also an interesting Venn diagram to be drawn, depicting lesser-spotted subcultures, using the film’s cast as a model.

The idea of searching for magic in the margins of reality, however unscientific, ought to provide enough of a framework to support an experimental documentary.

Sadly, it doesn’t. This muddled curio doesn’t coalesce into anything, even by its own dreamy, associational terms. None of the individual segments feels like it belongs near any of the other segments. There’s no flow, no internal logic.

We’re left watching a film at war with itself. What kind of viewer will enjoy its hippie-friendly overture, the Thoreau section and then an hour of Lichens on stage? A very schizoid one, indeed.

Robert AA Lowe makes for an enigmatic talisman. But it would require a properly powerful incantation for Spell to translate into magic.