Interview with Slapface composer Barry J. Neely

Barry J. Neely
Barry J. Neely /

Directed by Jeremiah Kipp and available on Shudder, Slapface is a quirky-yet-creepy “boy and his witch” story starring August Maturo, Mike Manning, Libe Barer, Dan Hedaya, and Lukas Hassel. The film has won the Audience Award in the “Feature Thriller, Horror or Sci-Fi” category at the Cinequest Film Festival in 2021 and (as of this writing) has an almost perfect Rotten Tomatoes score. We talked with the film’s composer, Barry J. Neely, about his experience working on the film’s score, the monster as a symbol of trauma, and his favorite horror films.

Interview with Slapface composer Barry J. Neely

1428 ELM: Slapface works as a feature-length movie, but (sort of like Creepshow) I could also see it as a quirky, page-turning graphic novel. What story elements do you think will grab people the most?

BARRY J. NEELY: The roots of this movie are VERY dark, but not necessarily “monster” dark, more the deep-rooted trauma of two kids dealing with the death of their parents in very different but troubling ways.

There are a few backstories that I could and would love to see expanded. Without giving too much away, this is not the first time there have been some horrific interactions with the Witch. The whole town—even the Sheriff—seems to already know about her.

1428 ELM: The movie features some distinctive characters, but none really comes across as heroes or heroines. Even Lucas, the apparent protagonist of the film, isn’t simply a “hero.” Does that make Slapface easier or harder to create music for?

BARRY J. NEELY: For me, easier. If anything, I am drawn to writing sad, darker music. So, the conflicting characters were relatively easy to compose for. The main challenge was that I love incorporating rhythm—the more complicated, the better. But none of the characters nor the storylines called for that. Even the “chase” scenes didn’t lend themselves to anything overt.

What I did was sit alone at my piano and take the time to come up with some deeply personal piano lines that would match the dysfunctional life of the brothers, and from that, I was able to extract and expand the score overall.

Barry J. Neely
Slapface key art – Courtesy of Shudder /

Slapface is “sparse and raw”

1428 ELM: How was the music performed for Slapface? What did your creative process look like?

BARRY J. NEELY: The score is sparse and raw, and I started writing it right at the beginning of the pandemic, so I knew it was going to be me doing a bulk of the instrumentation work. Even though I knew roughly what I wanted, I also ended up finding some interesting instruments locally, like a dulcimer, and a Santur, which is an Iranian hammered dulcimer.

I then wrote with those instruments in mind, but I also knew I would write for violin because of the sounds I knew I would need. Luckily, my friend and someone I’ve collaborated with many times in the past, Crissy J, was interested and available to record the parts from her home studio.

It all became a blend of me playing live instruments, using some virtual instruments and synthetic sounds, and sending sheet music to Crissy J for her to add her own spin. Plus, adding a few non-distinct vocal lines of singer Zehra Fazal over a few parts.

1428 ELM: There are some interesting conflicts in the story. The character of Moriah is basically in love with Lucas, but she won’t act on it because he’s unpopular. Was it difficult to create music for her?

BARRY J. NEELY: My first instinct was to write something “cute” and innocent. And I think I even did that in an early draft. But right away, it just stuck out too much. And Slapface director Jeremiah Kipp immediately picked up on that. Ultimately, Moriah’s “musical story” needed to become a gradual tragedy, so I went in that direction.

1428 ELM: Also, this is a rare film where female bullies pick on a boy, which not many movies seem to depict. Do you think that adds to Lucas’s sense of humiliation, that it’s not a problem boys are expected to face?

BARRY J. NEELY: From a musical perspective, I didn’t draw upon any distinction. Bullying is bullying. That being said, I really did appreciate this different take.

Slapface – Courtesy of Shudder /

If a witch did the dishes?

1428 ELM: It seems that, by the end of Slapface, people might be confused, but in an interesting way. What are your thoughts on the monster character in the story, and what unique aspects of the character influenced the score?

BARRY J. NEELY: I made no decision myself as to the ending. My focus was on Lucas the entire film. And the story never seemed to be about the Witch herself, but about Lucas and his interactions with her. By the end, he’s an even more isolated, lonely, and scared boy. And that’s why the music trickles down to a single piano note.

1428 ELM: If the character’s traits and actions were all reversed, what sort of a movie would Slapface be?

BARRY J. NEELY: If Tom became a responsible father figure, Lucas and Moriah fell in love, and the Witch ended up helping with the dishes, I’m sure it would change a lot!

1428 ELM: What are some of your favorite horror films and TV shows, musically?

BARRY J. NEELY: I LOVE my Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, and my Insidious… But I also view a movie like Requiem for a Dream as a movie with one of the most horrifying endings of all time. And the music in that film by Clint Mansell is out-of-this-world good, terrifying, and IMPACTFUL. Lost Boys also comes to mind. If Thomas Newman can create a score with a children’s choir singing “Thou Shall Not Kill” and make it sound awesome? That’s a win in my book.

And since I’m mentioning horrifying endings, 2007’s The Mist with Lisa Gerrard singing over a finale that even out-horrors Requiem for a Dream, those are the kind of moments I get super inspired by.

1428 ELM: What are some misconceptions people have about film scoring (if any) that you have noticed?

BARRY J. NEELY: You don’t need to be a John Williams. Movies don’t always need huge orchestration. Whatever sounds you need to draw out the emotion of the visuals is what you should do to make that score. Hit pots and pans, use empty ketchup bottles, hit YOURSELF (I used no slapping in Slapface, though…). Use whatever items and sounds that get to the root of human emotion because that’s what you’re ultimately trying to convey.

That all being said, I can’t say film scoring is necessarily easy. A lot of times I hear about someone scoring a movie with a buddy’s band’s music. Some things that are already written can be effective, but something written specifically for the movie will probably have a much greater impact.

1428 ELM: Is there anything else you would like audiences to know about your Slapface score?

BARRY J. NEELY: I did a few things that I doubt anyone will notice. For instance, I wrote a lot of the music in 5/4 time with motives in groups of 5 because I wanted to mimic the five fingers of a hand, to emphasize the “slap” of Slapface. Do you notice that when you see the movie? Probably not. So, I may have done that just for myself. But I LOVE hidden concepts, so why not try them out wherever I can?

1428 ELM: Are there any upcoming projects you’d feel like mentioning?

BARRY J. NEELY: Currently, I’m meeting with an artist who’s a rapper that raps in both Hindi and English, and that’s an avenue I have yet to explore. I’m looking forward to that, seeing where that goes for my next film.

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Slapface is now streaming on Shudder.