Elevated Horror: Continuing a New Tradition
In the line of heightened genre pieces coming out this year, Ghost Stories opened last Friday to critical acclaim in its limited release. The film presently has grossed a worldwide total of close to $2 million, with an 83% approval rate at Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by British filmmakers and playwrights Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, it is an adaptation of a former stage play that premiered at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London. Starring co-director Nyman and Martin Freeman, it’s a tip of the hat to the classic British horror of old, while a refreshingly modern, if strikingly minimalist exercise in the psychological thriller.
Nyman is noted for his work as a British character actor, appearing in the films Severance, Kick-Ass 2, and the Liam Neeson vehicle The Commuter. He brings a darkly comic yet genuinely moving earnestness to the role of the protagonist, a haunted and guilt-stricken man. Freeman shines as a Machiavellian creation in the story, a seeming recurring character in one of the narratives presented as the film’s “three cases”, but quickly turning out to have more significance than one would think, in the most surprising of ways. He’s a far cry from the endearing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit film trilogy, or the inept Lester Nygaard in the FX series Fargo. For many, he’s Dr. John Watson playing opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Homes on Sherlock which was introduced to an US audience by Netflix.
The film is similar in scope to previous horror-tinged outings like Unsane and Get Out, both covered by the Scope Weekly. It first premiered at the London Film Festival in 2017, before receiving a theatrical release in the UK on April 6 by Lionsgate, and a subsequent distributor in the United States by way of IFC Midnight April 20.
The story follows a Jewish professor, Phillip Goodman (Nyman), who is haunted by a family tragedy powered by religious superstition. He has dedicated himself to exposing and defrauding alleged psychics, by way of his television show. His stalwart skepticism is challenged when he is tasked by a former childhood idol and infamous paranormal investigator to solve three mysterious cases involving allegedly real supernatural phenomena. The results of these cases, one of which includes a financier (Freeman) haunted by a poltergeist, start to unravel his sanity, culminating in a plot twist that pulls the rug out from under typical audience expectations.
Ghost Stories Soundtrack: Not Just Horror, Says Composer
Speaking with The Scope Weekly, the film’s composer, acclaimed Israeli-German musician Haim Frank Ilfman, discussed the challenges of approaching the unconventional film the right way. The end result, he explained, was less about crafting a score that was distinctly horror, and more about creating something both hypnotically beautiful and very uncomfortable-making simultaneously.
In Ilfman’s own words, the music had to feel like a throwback, while exuding a very contemporary slickness. “It was important to make the score timeless,” he said. “The thing with Ghost Stories is it kind of jumps between the seventies and now. We wanted to do something that would have the essence of very old British films and shows like Tales of the Unexpected, but at the same time would have a very modern feeling.”
In spite of this, viewers of typical American fare like The Conjuring and It, Ghost Stories could find Ghost Stories to be refreshingly different. It’s a reminder that not all horror is dependent upon jump scares and impressive visual effects, and has a distinctly British feel to it a la a supernatural Agatha Christie novel, or even something by Mary Shelley.
Ilfman’s balanced approach in this vein also applied to contrasting the horror in the film with its characters’ more refined sensibilities. “The question there was how we would combine the emotional elements of Goodman’s character with the creepy, more psychological and scary parts of the movie,” he said. “Our first discussion entailed that we needed melodic music that was very visceral, that had a sense of melancholy and an undertone making you feel like something was lurking beneath the surface. A soundtrack that would lull you in by being so beautiful, but make you very uncomfortable at the same time because of the jarring, hair-raising moments.”
Ilfman said he also tried to put a slightly Jewish spin on the music, considering the film’s religious elements and protagonist. “The story opens with eight-millimeter footage of Phillip Goodman’s bar mitzvah, before expanding on his Jewish background and family issues growing up,” he said. “There’s no actual orthodox music because it’s a very large orchestra playing the melodies. It was important not to be distinctly religious in that regard.”
From Stage to Screen
With respect to finding the right balance in highlighting the film’s three “cases”, Ilfman stated his approach was scoring them as separate segments, “almost like they were separate characters.” This was helped by his familiarity with the story as a whole, before it was adapted for film. Dyson and Nyman originally wrote Ghost Stories for the stage, premiering in 2010 at the Liverpool Playhouse before transferring to the London-based Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith. Naturally, the process of adapting a play for the big screen means eliminating certain nuances and elements best left at the stage door. But it’s clear watching the film that Ghost Stories still retains a theatricality and a quirkiness from its roots that aids in making it so unpredictable, as well as so chilling.
“I had the privilege to see it with Andy back in 2014,” Ilfman recalled. “There was no music at all, just sound effects and a sort of ambient sound design. It was very character-focused. The acting was everything. It was just very emotional and very scary, and really affecting to me.”
This film is not rated by the MPAA.
Production Company: Altitude Film Entertainment, Warp Films
Starring: Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman
Distributor: IFC Midnight (US)
Directors: Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson
Screenwriters: Andy Nyman, Jeremy Dyson
Producer: Claire Jones
Director of Photography: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Editor: Billy Sneddon
Venue: London Film Festival 2017