The Ghoul, Gareth Tunley’s feature debut, is a superb example of a movie that defines the word “genre.” Part detective story, part psychological thriller, it’s a film which also flirts with folk horror and noir as it tells the story of a man named Chris and his search for the truth. The truth, as both Chris and the audience learn, is never constant. Just when it seems that all those maddening questions will be answered, the ground shifts beneath and nothing is as it seems. Unlike Fight Club (1999), where the reveal of Tyler Durden’s true identity serves as a dramatic demarcation, The Ghoul operates as a Moebius strip or a Klein bottle, two objects which not only direct the movie’s narrative but become an integral part of it.
The Ghoul opens with scenes of Chris (Tom Meeten) driving to London on the M1 in order to investigate a mysterious crime scene. Chris and Jim (Dan Skinner) are two detectives tasked with figuring out why two murder victims wouldn’t stop approaching an armed intruder even after being shot six times. Chris has a hunch that Coulson (Rufus Jones), the property manager, is somehow involved; this leads the pair of sleuths to an abandoned apartment and a bulletin board full of notes that may or may not be clues. When Chris seeks the help of a forensic investigator Kath (Alice Lowe) and goes undercover to glean information from Coulson’s psychotherapist Dr Fisher (Niamh Cusack), The Ghoul becomes something completely unexpected.
Waen Shepherd’s score is integral to The Ghoul. Shifting between subtle electronica and poignant orchestral segments, the music seems out of place at times until the same motifs repeat themselves in a different context and are then revealed to be ideally suited for the film’s emotional trajectory. Tunley and cinematographer Benjamin Pritchard also create a seamless visual narrative overlaying the fractured storylines which comprise the plot. Shots are repeated, like the music cues, in different contexts and from different points of view.
In the first 15 minutes of The Ghoul, the viewer is trying to get their bearings, so when things start to unravel shortly thereafter (or get tied together, as it were), there is a sense of disorientation, followed by a sense of understanding that what has been presented is not necessarily reality. At this point, The Ghoul becomes a character study, a drama that invests the audience in Chris’s fate and his well-being. Tom Meeten is marvellous at handling the subtle transitions between the Chris that the viewer thinks they know and the Chris that may or may not exist. Little clues begin to appear that suggest that The Ghoul is heading in a certain direction; most of this comes at the hands of Dr Fisher and her colleague, Dr Morland, the latter played with amusing intensity by Geoffrey McGivern.
Halfway through the film, however, there is an “impossible” shot of a guest (Drez, played by James Eyres Kenward) at a party that Chris is attending. The camera frames Drez from an angle from which no one at the party could possibly see him unless they cut a hole in the floor and peeked out from below. That startling image portends a seemingly casual question by another party guest that soon sends Chris, and the audience, into a state of confusion and panic.
That’s when The Ghoul, like the aforementioned Moebius strip and Klein bottle, loops back around on itself in alarming ways. The ending is as disturbing as it is enigmatic, leaving the audience to wonder if any of what has been presented has been real at all. It’s a marvellous existential exercise that’s suspenseful, heartbreaking, and unsettling.
The Ghoul was released by Arrow Films on 4 September and the special features on this release are terrific. The commentary track with Tunley, Meeten, and producer Jack Guttman is informative and witty; they explain in detail how the film was made for almost no money, a revelation that is surprising considering the superlative nature of the finished product.
There is also a 36-minute documentary on the film called “In the Loop,” which features single-camera interviews with the cast and crew, as well as executive producers Dhiraj Mahey and Ben Wheatley. These interviews give a lot of background on how the cast and crew are connected through the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. They also provide much inspiration and advice for budding independent filmmakers. The disc includes a hilarious short film by Tunley called “The Baron,” based on a character created by Tom Meeten and featuring Steve Oram. Finally, the film’s trailer is also included.