Heaven of Horror recently spoke with composer Pessi Levanto about IFC Midnight’s new horror film, The Innocents.
The Innocents follows four children who become friends during the summer holidays. Out of sight of the adults, they discover they have hidden powers. While exploring their newfound abilities in the nearby forests and playgrounds, their innocent play takes a dark turn and strange things begin to happen.
Eskil Vogt wrote and directed the film. It stars Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Sam Ashraf, Ellen Dorrit Pedersen, Morten Svartveit, Kadra Yusuf, and Lisa Tønne.
How would you describe your score for the film?
I’d say my score has a whimsical and nostalgic quality while ominous and creepy, or that was my attempt at least. Like a reminder of the world of children which is now lost to us as grown-ups.
You have said that the score is texture-based. Can you explain what you mean by this?
What I meant is that the score has very little melodic, harmonic or rhythmic elements. The sound itself and the textures the sounds make are the main thing in it. It’s ever-present like the midnight sun -lighting creating a constant uncomfortable atmosphere without being too narrative in itself.
The main theme is only played in the opening and closing credits. Was it ever discussed to use it in the middle of the film too?
Yes, we experimented quite a lot along the way and tried the main melody and other ideas within the film. But every time we did we felt that it lightened the tone of the film and distanced us as viewers from the ”realistic” style of it making it into fun entertainment instead of something truly gripping. Sometimes it felt downright corny in this film’s context, so we opted for a more low-profile approach.
You were able to record with an orchestra for some of the sounds. Where did you record at?
Yes, we recorded with a bunch of session musicians in Helsinki at a legendary studio called Finnvox.
Why do you think an orchestra can sound so menacing at times?
Scoring a horror film is a real candy shop for a composer as all the interesting techniques of 20th-century classical music are at your disposal. I used some devices from spectral music (a 70’s French style of modern classical music) and created some very dissonant and jarring chords and textures that way. It’s a weird psychological thing that when accompanied with visuals we layer associations and meaning on music based on our previous experiences as viewers. So we can perceive something as menacing which would be maybe even beautiful and peaceful in a concert context.
Can you talk about the gong-type sounds that are playing when Ben is using his magical powers? What was that created with?
This was a Finnish experimental drummer and percussionist Mika Kallio who has assembled a set of gongs he uses in his performances. There are about 25 of them in a large rack. I recorded him for a day and we got quite a bit of useful material. So they are actual little gongs.
In another interview you have said that Scandinavian art-house horror is not really an established genre, so it felt like you were treading into new territory. Because of this, do you think you were able to experiment more with different sounds?
Definitely. And I didn’t feel any need to follow a set of ”rules” in any genre. It was very liberating and also a huge challenge since there was no obvious path to follow. Although that being said, experimenting with sounds is a very common approach in film music these days as getting a unique sound world is a major goal in any project no matter what genre.
The Innocents currently holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Why do you think the film has resonated so well with audiences?
It’s been heartwarming to witness and quite surprising as it’s not the easiest film to watch due to some pretty gruesome scenes and the overall slow pacing. But many people have said the film has brought to mind memories from their own childhood they had thought were forgotten. It really makes you think about how morality develops as we grow. I’d say many of us have done pretty cruel stuff as kids when the moral compass is only taking shape. While we may not share the supernatural abilities -part of this story, there is something that resonates in everyone and makes us realize what a different world children live in and that we will never be a part of it again.
What was the first horror film that you took notice of when growing up?
When I was little, I was scared of everything, including every program on TV. ”Dumbo” was the most traumatic experience I had ever had. So I didn’t really want to watch a lot of stuff. But when I was in my teens, I grew out of this and got interested in horror, maybe to compensate. The first real horror film I went to see when I was 13 in Paris was Friday the 13th Part VII in 1988 and that was a revelation of how intriguing a charismatic film villain can be.