AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: 4th September, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 85 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Chris is a police detective who is called to a very strange crime scene. It seems that an intruder killed a man and a woman who seem to have continued to move forward after being shot in ways that should have killed them outright, and who didn’t die until the intruder left the building. Chris suspects that the property manager Coulson, a “ghoul” who likes to hang around crime scenes, could be involved, and discovers that Coulson was visiting a psychiatrist Dr. Fisher, so he goes undercover as a depression sufferer to visit Fisher and try to find out more. He tells her that he’s seriously depressed, partly because he’s in love with old college friend Kathleen who’s married to his investigative partner Jim….and begins to have trouble telling reality from fantasy….
I love a good twisty, mind bendy head scratcher, and Gareth Tunley’s directorial debut ticked most of the boxes for me despite being made on a very tiny budget indeed. Obviously influenced by certain films from the likes of Christopher Nolan, Roman Polanski, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, and bearing no relation to either of the two horror films of the same title [though one character is named after one in the 1933 movie], The Ghoul does show the influence of executive producer Ben Wheatley, having quite a similar look and feel to his first two films as well as providing a decidedly Wheatley-like spin on various genre tropes and sharing some of his interests [none of which may seem surprising considering that several Wheatley collaborators are involved], but is also most definitely its own movie. Short on action and heavy on dialogue, it’s also rife with symbolism which some may either find too esoteric or going totally over their heads, as well as being very reliant on dialogue with little in the way of action, though Tunley did only have a meagre budget with which to play with. It’s also quite a gloomy piece [Wheatley would have probably provided some dark humour if he’d written and directed it] which is odd considering it’s made by and features many people who have a comedic background – though in it’s odd way does provide quite a bit of insight into depression – and I believe that I’m a little bit qualified to say that as I’ve flirted with depression a few times myself.
Now I’m aware that the above paragraph may come across as being rather negative, but it’s only so that readers unsure of what kind of film The Ghoul is get some idea and decide whether to bail out or come aboard. If this kind of thing does appeals then jump in because even seasoned viewers of films like this may be pleasantly startled by how Tunley has told his idea-filled story and put his film together, be it Benjamin Pritchard’s often low-angle cinematography which portrays London as a disorientating maze, the often confusing [but deliberately so] way shots are cut together in defiance of conventional cinema logic [post production took a year and it must have taken forever to get the editing right], or – and this is something that really impressed me – the way that, quite early, the film seems to tell us [I say ‘”seems” because I’m not 100% sure on this and nor will many viewers be] which of Chris’s two lives is real and which isn’t, and yet how for some reason it doesn’t weaken the narrative [if indeed “narrative” is the right word] and even makes it more compelling while still throwing plenty of weird stuff to throw us off guard and keeping us guessing as to what the hell is actually going on.
So we basically have two stories which weave in and out of each other, and which both feature most of the same cast members in different roles. We have Chris, a detective who’s off-duty due to some unexplained events in the past, investigating this bizarre homicide and going undercover as a psyhotherapy patient in a bid to sniff out clues about the mysterious Coulson from their shared therapist, Fisher. He’s clearly got some serious issues of his own, his rather fractured mind illustrated by jagged and not always coherent editing which has lots of jump cuts and sometimes jumps forward to the next scene and then briefly back a few times to the previous one. He goes to visit psychological profiler Kathleen and suddenely we cut to them in bed together, but the timing of the shots clearly tells us that something obviously isn’t right. Of course the cinema is rife with stories about people going under deep cover who become badly affected by their job, even about folk who feign mental illness but become seriously mixed up themselves. However, we now get into the alternate scenario of Chris being really ill in the first place and visiting Fisher as a real patient before being referred by her to Dr. Alexander Morland when she falls ill. Kathleen is now an old friend who’s also moved down from Manchester to London with whom he’s obsessed with. His partner Jim is now also a patient of Morland’s and has paranoid rantings which threaten to mess up the seriously fragile Chris even more.
As I said earlier, we soon seem to find out which version is real and which isn’t, but reality and fantasy continue to interweave as if we’re seeing things from Chris’s seriously screwed up perspective. Tom Meeton is entirely convincing as this hugely troubled character who never seems to even smile. At one point Jim takes him to a party but even this seems to be a gloomy place with seriously unhappy music. There, he has a dope-fuelled one night stand, but is still crazy about Kathleen even though this other woman wants to see him again. At times, he’s his own worst enemy – keep an eye on, for example, the odd little things he does when Kathleen possibly seems to be interested in him such as patting her on the head – but we sympathise with him nonetheless, stuck in the hopeless loop of depression. The film falters just a bit around half way through with Chris’s endless conversations with Morland who conducts his sessions at his own home which is strangely and rather worryingly decorated with occult ephemera, though Morland articulates the overall structure of the film when he refers to things like the Klein bottle which has no entire inside or outside, and the Möbius strip, a one-sided surface with no boundaries where an ant would end up back where he started without ever crossing an edge, or turning back. These are neat metaphors for the dreadful trap that is depression, though are perhaps slightly overstated. And there’s certainly one twist coming which I certainly didn’t expect [though others might as I’ve never been too good at spotting these things] which really makes you re-evaluate what you’re watching.
The Ghoul seems to exist in that world familiar from some Wheatley films where England’s magical, folklore-filled past slightly informs the present. Despite London being the world’s most populated city, here the mainly Hackney locales seem largely devoid of people. Quite often cinematic studies of loneliness show the main protagonist surrounded by loads of folk but being unable to connect with them. This one does the opposite, and it’s probably closer to how alot of people like Chris actually feel. Enhancing this is the appropriately gloomy photography. Some scenes are very dark indeed, like the opening one where characters are basically silhouettes for much of the time. This didn’t bother me as I felt it added to the atmosphere that Tunley was going for, but some viewers may find a few bits excessively dark. Some scenes have mainly black backgrounds for what are probably budgetry reasons. More annoying to me was some rather poor sound recording in the early scenes, though this got better and better as the film went on, as if it was at least partly shot in sequence.And Waen Shepherd’s really unsettling score – though not with its moments of ‘near’ [though not quite] happiness – really helps us to get inside Chris’s head.
After Meeten, Geoffrey McGivern and Rufus Jones make the strongest impression as the rather too chirpy Morland and the increasingly unhinged Coulson respectively. Lowe, though good as always, seems slightly miscast. The Ghoul certainly isn’t perfect, even if you allow for the shoe-string budget, though it aims so high that its faults can be mostly forgiven. Tunley has pulled of a weird little gem here that certainly has the Wheatley touch but which also shows an interesting new filmmaker, previously known for comedy, with a distinctive voice and style which is his own. And it’s downright inspiring how lack of money and equipment obviously hasn’t held Tunley back from making the ambitious film he wanted to make. For me, the result only seriously falters during the last five minutes which I feel that many will find fustrating and unsatisfying. They seem to both overexplain and underexaplain, which sounds impossible I know but watch the film and you’ll see what I mean, though thankfully there’s still some stuff that’s left ambiguous. On the other hand, I think that the act of watching again very soon could be even more rewarding than the first viewing.
With all the dark scenes in it, The Ghoul probably wouldn’t have looked very good on video or indeed early DVD, but luckily you’ll have no problem seeing what’s going on from Arrow’s release despite the film having been made very cheaply. It comes with a good selection of special features, first of which is a very good 35 minute documentary with many of the cast and crew. It goes into the background of the filmmakers, the gestation of the project, and how it was shot on such a tiny budget. The Baron is a short film by Tunley featuring Meeten as a guy who attempts to frighten his boss, female co-worker whom he fancies, and his therapist by dressing up as a master of terror called the Baron. Based on a comedic character Meeten created years before, it interestingly foreshadows The Ghoul in several ways. I found it rather funny, though this kind of alternative comedy is of course very much an acquired taste.
And then you have a fact-filled yet very entertaining commentary from Tunley, Meeten and producer Jack Healy Guttmann, all three of whom have lots of things to say rather than one or two people dominating. Tunley jokingly says that they’re doing the commentary: “So hopefully people can get tips on how not to make a film”, but actually the result is the complete opposite and virtually a crash course in how to make a film with almost nothing, from using the same two or three houses over and over again to what seem like Steadicam shots actually being done using a wheelchair. The three seem proud of the film and praise their collaborators but don’t go overboard on the “everyone was wonderful” stuff, and keep the chat light without ever losing focus. It’s probably one of the best commentaries I’ve heard in a while, at least for a new film, and even if The Ghoul may end up not really doing it for you, I thoroughly recommend that you check the talk track out as it will probably increase your admiration for it and wonder why so many films are so darn expensive when they don’t necessarily need to be.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation / Standard Definition DVD presentation
*Original 5.1 audio
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*In the Loop, a brand-new documentary on the conception and making of The Ghoul produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release. Featuring interviews with Tunley, Meeten, Guttmann, actors Alice Lowe, Geoff McGivern, Niamh Cusack Rufus Jones and Dan Skinner, composer Waen Shepherd, and executive producers Dhiraj Mahey and Ben Wheatley
*a 2013 short film with optional commentary by writer-director Tunley and writer-actor Meeten
*Commentary by writer-director Gareth Tunley, actor-producer Tom Meeten and producer Jack Healy Guttmann
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Booklet featuring writing on the film by Adam Scovell, author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strangenbsp;