Emerging from the same independent film scene that brought us Ben Wheatley, Alice Lowe, and Steve Oram, writer-director Gareth Tunley’s feature debut is an incredibly impressive piece of work. Located somewhere in the Venn diagram of social-realism, indie crime thriller, experimental surrealism, and occult horror, The Ghoul is a fascinating and deeply unsettling trip into a damaged mind.
It begins on familiar enough territory, with police detective Chris (Tom Meeten) investigating a bizarre home-invasion-double-murder, where the victims apparently kept moving after being shot multiple times at close range. His only lead is a man named Coulson (Rufus Jones). He is the landlord of the property where the crime took place, and the police soon learn he has a habit of lurking around crime scenes – otherwise known as “a ghoul”.
When Coulson disappears, the police search his flat and find a wall covered in bizarre clippings, notes and pictures. One of the officers dryly comments, “it doesn’t look good.” Nope, it certainly doesn’t. Chris learns that Coulson has been seeing a therapist, and wants to get hold of his psychiatric records hoping this will help to track him down. With the help of a police profiler (Alice Lowe) Chris fakes a severe case of depression and mental illness in order to become a patient himself. And that is where the fun begins.
As psychotherapist Helen (Niamh Cusack) delves into Chris’s mind, so too does Tunley’s narrative, as the fictional mentally ill creation of Chris and Kathleen becomes the main character. He spends his days wandering around a hellscape version of London, fixating on his school-teacher ex-girlfriend (Lowe) and fantasising that he’s an undercover cop.
Is Chris really a cop? Is this all just the delusion of mental illness? Can we trust anything we are seeing? The narrative twists and turns and doubles back on itself in fascinating ways, making you reassess the last thing you saw even as you are watching it. With the plot traversing Möbius strips and Kleinsche flasks The Ghoul is most definitely a film that will reward multiple viewings. This is incredibly confident filmmaking on an ultra-low budget.
The fingerprints of executive producer Ben Wheatley are very evident in the film’s lo-fi, nightmarish, suburban occult aesthetic. This would make a fucking terrifying double bill with Kill List. But the atmospheric dreamscapes, visual motifs, music cues, and surreal flourishes owe more to David Lynch and Danny Boyle. Like both of those directors, Tunley is evidently a filmmaker with vision and ideas. Let’s hope he is afforded the opportunity to realise them.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus