The Ferryman is a low-budget psychological horror/drama about a young woman who survives a suicide attempt but remains haunted by a mysterious figure. It was made in Manchester, UK, by Elliott Maguire, entirely on an iPhone.
The Ferryman is the story of Mara, who cannot bear to carry on living and attempts suicide. She comes round in the hospital – fortunately! – and is grudgingly persuaded to continue her life. But her life steadily becomes quite surreal, while remaining tragic: a father she never knew appears and commits to seeing her back to health, and two new acquaintances die suddenly, as if her unintentionally cheating death comes at a price. At the same time, Mara gradually becomes aware of a figure who follows her, until she has no choice but to confront The Ferryman.
Mara (Nicola Holt) is very clearly depressed and grieving when we first meet her; her days are a cycle of waking, looking out of the window, watching home videos, sleeping. This introductory scene, along with the following one where she makes her lonely suicide attempt, are my favorites: they are insightful, simple and moving. They also have a terrific musical score, which is aptly melancholy, draws the viewer into caring for Mara, yet jars occasionally, along with her pain. We spend the whole film with Mara: it is her story. Holt plays the part very well (I wouldn’t be surprised if the part was written for her), with sensitivity towards her grief and trauma, and I’ll be keeping my eye open for what she does next.
Her father, Roland (Garth Maunders), appears out of the blue in Mara’s life, having never been around at all until now. She clearly needs someone with her at that point, so I kind of wondered if he may have been the product of wishful thinking. Did I mention the story seemed surreal at times? Maunders, like Holt, plays his part very naturally: even though Roland has never been a proper Dad until now (and even though the writing isn’t great at times), he is sincere enough that I can believe him when he says he wants to make it up to her. The scenes he shares with Holt work especially well, with the fragile relationship between them believable, and the emotions pouring from both, right to the viewer. But this is down to the acting, rather than the writing, for the most part.
Yeah: in parts, the dialogue is not great… The Ferryman was both written, directed and produced by Elliott Maguire, and in my opinion, the script would have benefited from polishing by a more experienced writer. Maguire shows skill in his direction, for sure, especially in those first two scenes that I’ve already mentioned, but in the attention he gives to many other scenes and brief moments, too, some with nice use of light and color, others with particularly thoughtful pacing.
The production is less successful, though. Elliott Maguire made The Ferryman entirely on iPhone 7. In terms of the filming, that isn’t an issue; but some of the sound quality is very patchy, and the editing (especially from one scene to the next) somewhat erratic. Some scenes start with little warning, and some decisions seem to have been made without any explanation. This took a little getting used to, but in retrospect, Ghost Stories had that same characteristic (what was it about British horror and grief?). And yes, I did say something about it being surreal, so that occasional jerky feel may have fitted, but it didn’t seem entirely deliberate, but rather a result of the production methods. Perhaps the film may have been a little more successful if Maguire hadn’t been so determined to do as much as possible with existing resources. Low budget can be done better. I’m a big fan of Be My Cat: A Film for Anne, Creep, and The Battery: the latter, for example, was beautifully made for $6,000; but at £1,500, less than half that was spent on The Ferryman. And in case I glossed over it: the sound – especially dialogue – is very patchy.
By the way, as cheap horrors go, The Ferryman is not something thrown together with lots of special effects for gorehounds: it is the sort of film which focuses on emotions, and Maguire uses the horror seeping from every scene to show us his main character’s frame of mind… Think The Babadook… And like The Babadook, The Ferryman is full to the brim with allegory, though some aspects are left even more open to interpretation, which I enjoyed a great deal. It isn’t clear whether this is a fantasy story with Death’s courier nagging Mara to stick to her plan, whether the Ferryman is something she is imagining as a symptom of the depths of her depression, or indeed whether her suicide was a success and everything that followed merely Mara’s reflections or dreams on her departure. I liked the ending and found it didn’t require any particular interpretation in order to do so.
There is a lot to admire about The Ferryman… The story as a whole, the acting, the direction and the sheer gall of doing all this for such a small purse. But that doesn’t make it a great film: it is worth watching, for sure, though flawed. I really hope Maguire obtains sufficient funds for his next project to make a more polished film, which will be appreciated by more people.