❉ Nothing is at it seems in this esoteric, enigmatic Brit indie flick.
“H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” As The Ghoul unfolds – or spirals – Chris and his accomplice Coulson have good reason to doubt that this particular mercy ever existed.”
Gareth Tunley’s debut feature film The Ghoul, carries a pedigree that has We Are Cult written through it like a stick of rock: Its executive producer is Ben Wheatley, director of Kill List, A Field In England, Sightseers, High Rise and Free Fire; and actor turned writer/director Tunley has gathered together a fine cast of contemporaries who share his association with Wheatley’s back catalogue and whose collaborative credits include Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Aaaaaaaah!, Crackanory and the Ealing Live comedy collective – Tom Meeten, Alice Lowe and Dan Renton Skinner , aka Shooting Stars’ Angelos Epithemiou. Rounding off the cast is Rufus Jones (Holy Flying Circus), Paul Kaye (the erstwhile Dennis Pennis), galactic hitchhiker Geoffrey McGivern (the original Ford Prefect) and versatile stage and screen actress Niamh Cusack.
Sight unseen, this particularly rich constellation of maverick talents – virtually a ‘who’s who’ of the modern British cult comedy and indie cinema scene whose time seems to have finally come – might suggest that the viewer is in store for more of the darkly comic, macabre and gruesome blend of twisted humour, neo folk horror and stylised gore that fans of Kill List, Sightseers or Prevenge might expect (and it’s most definitely NOT an update of Freddie Francis’ 1975 chamber piece of the same name) but The Ghoul is more closely aligned to the existential, esoteric, psychological terror of Nic Roeg, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan’s puzzle-box movies – albeit on a tuppeny-ha’penny Dogme 95-style budget that makes the most of its small cast and limited, claustrophobic locations of flats, offices and a handful of West Ham parks and streets. In this sense at least, The Ghoul feels texturally akin to Alice Lowe’s Prevenge which made a similar virtue of these very same details.
The Ghoul opens up in the style of a police procedural, as Chris (Meeten) is called down to London from Manchester to investigate a double homicide with a curious twist – two victims who appear to have continued moving towards their assailant despite receiving multiple gunshots in the head and chest at close range. Following a tip-off from colleague Jim (Dan Renton Skinner) – and with the help of old flame Kath (Alice Lowe, playing a well-balanced member of society for once!) – Chris goes undercover to investigate suspect Coulson, a ‘ghoul’ who loiters around crime scenes, by inveigling himself into counselling sessions with Coulson’s counsellor Ms. Fisher (an ice-cold Niamh Cusack).
So far, so standard, right? Very soon, Chris makes the acquaintance of Coulson himself – Rufus Jones channeling every inch of his broad frame to embody the garrulous charm of a high-functioning sociopath – and learns that Coulson has some pretty wild, esoteric theories about Fisher and her colleague, psychotherapist Alexander Morland, who takes Chris under his wing after Fisher has to suddenly, mysteriously take leave of absence.
It’s from this point that it becomes apparent that The Ghoul is not a police procedural with a few quirky twists, but – to deploy a clichéd phrase that is utterly appropriate here – a mystery where literally nothing is as it appears.
It’s fairly clear from quite early on that Chris may or may not be in need of having to go undercover to become a patient of Fisher’s, as we see him in wordless vignettes stalking the streets and throroughfares of outer London, a husk of a man in search of a purpose, or pacing his prison cell-like bedsit with anxious, motiveless, urgency. No real clues are given as to his character’s malaise, although in a parallel subplot, it emerges that Lowe’s Kath is an old University girlfriend that he’s never quite gotten over, and his meetings with her have a strong aura of a lost soul trying to rekindle a spark that, for the other party, has long fizzled out, holding on for hope against hope that residual affection for times past might blossom into something more tangible. A depressing, and all too achingly relatable, situation for anyone who’s felt the fateful tug of the one that got away. Kath is in the now, here – Chris is nowhere.
The question of whether or not Chris is a forensic detective posing as a depressive, or a depressive posing as a forensic detective, hangs heavy over the unfolding drama, as Chris is dragged further into Coulson’s manic mental underworld of far-ranging, wild yet interconnected theories about Fisher and Morland’s true purpose, and what Coulson and Chris’ place in this might be. At the same time, the viewer is given reason enough to doubt that Jim and Kath’s roles are as previously described and that, if we’re viewing things through Chris’ eyes, he might not be the most reliable narrator.
As Coulson warns Chris, Morland, has a wide-ranging, erudite understanding of occult arcana and the importance of symbols and signs. As Morland, Geoff McGivern is worth the entrance price alone – anyone familiar with his work will know that he lights up any scene of any film or programme he appears in, magnetic and mercurial, and he’s perfectly cast here, holding forth on esoterica such as sigils, leylines, Crowley, Mobius strips, the oroborous and klein bottles with avuncular charm.
These are Morland’s pet obsessions, and the key to The Ghoul – the oroborous and Mobius strips represent circles and chains without beginning or end – not only are they a kind of metaphor for Chris’ own downward spiral but also for the bewildering nature of the case Chris is investigating: No sooner does he appear to have got to the heart of the matter, than he finds himself back at square one.
H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” As The Ghoul unfolds – or spirals – Chris and his accomplice Coulson have good reason to doubt that this particular mercy ever existed.
To disclose any more in capsule review type fashion, would be to ruin any enjoyment for the viewer, but if you’re attracted to head-scratching movies of an existential, cyclical nature such as Performance, Lost Highway or Memento you’ll find plenty of head food here.
As a debut feature making a virtue of its strong cast and shoestring budget, fans of esoterica should find plenty to admire and intrigue in The Ghoul, and it also resonates as an impressionistic portrait of falling into the clutches of the spiral of depression. Films of this open-ended nature tend to leave viewers who desire a more functional plot, fleshed-out backstories and a conventional story arc may leave The Ghoul feeling underwhelmed and unaccountably annoyed, but it’s a strong, promising start for Tunley as a filmmaker, is certain to find its own audience, and is a perfect match for We Are Cult’s remit as a home for the wayward, leftfield and independently minded.
For a small scale indie feature, Arrow’s DVD and Blu-ray release is not stingy on extras, and purchasers are rewarded with an exclusive ‘making of’ documentary which tells all about how the creative personnel behind this film came together – a neat crash-course for anyone new to the Ealing Live collective, a three-man commentary, 5.1 sound (all the better to showcase Waen Shepherd’s soundtrack, which will haunt your subconscious) and as an added bonus, Tunley and Meeten’s 2013 short film The Baron.
❉ ‘The Ghoul’ is released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Arrow Video, on Monday 4 September 2017. RRP £19.99 (Blu-ray)/£15.99 (DVD).