• Ben Erickson

Ghost Stories

Review for Ghost Stories originally published in the May 2018 issue of Film Score Monthly:

Ghost Stories is a British supernatural thriller adapted from the popular stage play of the same name, with both iterations written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson. The film - released in the U.K. on Friday, April 13th to up the fear factor - follows Phillip Goodman (Nyman), a professor who specializes in debunking paranormal activities, commissioned to solve a series of hauntings that bring into question everything he believes. The music is composed and conducted by Frank Ilfman, a well respected Israeli-German musician best known for his work on Big Bad Wolves and The Etruscan Smile. The veteran has scored over 40 films, serendipitously meeting Nyman at the 2013 premiere of Big Bad Wolves and staying in close contact for future collaboration. Ilfman studied trombone at the Jaffa Conservatorium of Music in Tel Aviv. In 1984, when he was barely even a teenager, he was introduced to Klaus Doldinger and invited to the recording sessions of The NeverEnding Story, since which time the composer has never looked back. It is clear there was no other choice but film music for Ilfman, and his expertise is plainly visible in his work on Ghost Stories. The music was recorded by the London Metropolitan Orchestra at Air Studios Lyndhurst Hall, an ensemble and location with which Ilfman is very familiar, using them to capture an ethereal essence inspired by the original stage play. The play had no music, and so the score is completely new to the story; it was also played on set to motivate the actors, as with some films of the Golden Age. The principle theme of the film bookends the score, written for Phillip Goodman and heard in “Goodman's Theme: End Titles” and “The Allerton Suite.” It is led by violin and clarinet to lend a stroke of folklore to the story, unfolding in the key of E, with a melody that captures the character’s Jewish roots. The theme is imbued with a revelatory power, becoming increasingly bolder as it gradually reveals the truth of the character. Far more intimidating is “Priddle’s Theme,” carried out on a rustic cello with brushing strings beneath that move into mysterious, sweeping phrases on violin. By contrast, “Maria’s Theme” is reflective and inquisitive, performed on a bass flute and joined by a spooky treble chorus after the recapitulation. Together these three melodies serve as signposts in the contour of the score, cleverly mingling with the elements of more acute terror.

The remainder of the score embraces gutsy, refined horror techniques capable of instilling primal dread in the toughest of movie addicts. Besides employing extended orchestral techniques, Ilfman uses unconventional instruments such as bone flutes, ripped fabrics, a monkey skull shaker, and scary toys to create a more distinct atmosphere. The product is pleasurably frightening, taking abrupt turns that constantly trigger fight or flight reactions, such as in the “Dada” cue, which opens with a baby monitor call from a spiritual entity before sliding down with suddenly pinched, dissonant strings. A waterphone plays heavily into this atmosphere, mingling with prickly, aleatoric strings and springing reverb effects. Other gestures include a bumbling bassoon, warping horns, clashing string harmonics, soft harp, and pensive piano, provoking an altogether alarming yet perceptive awareness from the orchestra, and electrifying our senses even as we attempt to comprehend what we are seeing. The fiendish choir is summoned regularly throughout the score, crying “demon” (“Stay”), assuaged only by a fateful soprano vocalist late in the film (“Daddy’s Got Meow Meow: The Lullaby”). In addition to the performance techniques employed in the score, there appear to be nods to certain sources of inspiration, such as the “Into the Woods” cue title to reference Sondheim’s musical, or the dialogue inserts redolent of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. A couple of old mainstream hits make the soundtrack album as well: Anthony Newley’s cover of the 1954 song “Why?" by Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Pickett’s 1962 “Monster Mash”. While these source inclusions may not appeal to everyone, the score overall is most definitely worth a listen. It is uniquely fashioned to the film, with attentive detail, and features inventive techniques that offer qualifiable credence to the thoughtful practices of the composer.