Full disclosure, I’ve known The Ghoul’s writer/director Gareth Tunley since the mid-nineties, even shared a flat together in Walthamstow. So approaching his feature debut dispassionately is not really happening.
I first saw the film a year ago before its successful festival run (The Ghoul played the London Film Festival and Mayhem in Nottingham among others), and the first thing that hit me was an overwhelming wave of relief that I didn’t have to look shifty and tell Big Daddy G ‘the cinematography is nice’ before suddenly remembering I had a bus to catch.
I had intended not to write the film up, figuring it as a conflict of interest (like the big I am that I am) and as others have done a sterling job of doing so (including such genre critics as Anton Bitel and Kim Newman in Empire Magazine.
But as The Ghoul is about to be released on the 4th August in the UK by Arrow Releasing on a limited theatrical run with a DVD and Blu Ray release following on 4th September, and as this is my blog and I’m beholden to nobody… fuck it, here’s a review of Gareth Tunley’s The Ghoul.
In the opening scene of The Ghoul, we meet Chris (Tom Meeten) apparently a police detective attending the scene of a suburban murder. Chris and another detective Jim (Dan Renton Skinner) are shown in by an estate agent Coulson (Rufus Jones), who tells them he cannot give the house away.
A couple has been shot in the murder house, but the details of the incident are not immediately clear. Jim describes the victims as continuing to walk towards ‘the shooter’ after being struck by bullets. Investigating further the detectives find incriminating evidence in Coulson’s flat. The estate agent has disappeared leaving behind a collage of obsession; a wall coated with scrawled notes, arcane diagrams, and photographs.
This seems to be the setup for a post-Se7en thriller, but such expectations are instantly torpedoed as we begin to follow Chris around and learn about his dismal existence. He lives in a sparse bedsit, eating noodles out of a pan. His days are spent aimlessly wandering the streets of East London. He has difficulty connecting with people and in love with Jim’s partner Kathleen (Alice Lowe). If this is a detective, he is engaged in a very peculiar deep cover operation.
When he visits a psychiatrist, it becomes apparent that Chris is struggling with mental illness, and he has constructed the fantasy that he is a detective out of the mundane elements of his life. However, as the detective identity is revealed as a sham the mystery set up in the opening scenes lingers. Chris is referred to a jocular psychotherapist Morland (Geoffrey McGivern), “normal tea, or some sort of gay tea? We’ve got the lot.”
Coulson reveals that he has his own mental health issues and was treated by Moorland, he advises Chris to be careful of the psychotherapist who he claims is an occultist. Who can Chris trust?
Films about depression are a tough sell. Discounting movies where mental illness is personified in a ‘kooky’ best friend, they have a tendency to fall somewhere between two extremes. At one end of the spectrum is a film like Girl, Interrupted where attractive stars deliver clever dialogue wearing vintage fashions, at the other is something as realistic as David Cronenberg’s Spider in which Ralph Fiennes plays a passive protagonist who mumbles whilst staring into the middle distance. Spider may be an accurate portrayal of mental illness, but it is nearly unwatchable. Somewhere in the middle is a sweet spot where realism and entertainment value does not cancel each other out. This is where The Ghoul resides.
Tunley mixes social realist drama with tropes and structures from a variety of genres. The Ghoul begins as a detective thriller but sheds this skin almost immediately, it has a conceptual pinch of science fiction when Moorland explains what a Klein Bottle is (a bottle with one surface, a kind of three dimensional Möbius strip), and it has elements of horror, but it never commits to any one of them.
The brutally low budget can be sensed in the sparseness of some of the staging – Tom Meeten’s bedsit makes Alan Delon’s in Le Samurai look like a master bedroom in the Palace of Versailles – but this contributes to maintaining the social realist grit. Cinematographer Benjamin Pritchard gives the night scenes around London and in particular those on the M25 a neon glow that contrasts with the gray interiors.
Coming out of a comedy background, Tunley has made a bold choice to write a script that is almost entirely serious in tone. Co-producer and lead actor Tom Meeten and Tunley met as performers on the comedy circuit, and much of the cast is known as stand up and improv performers (including Alice Lowe and Paul Kaye). There are laughs aplenty on the DVD/Blu-ray commentary, but apart from the ‘gay tea’ line, precious few in the actual movie.
Meeten carries the film, a man you would call ‘ruggedly handsome’ in real life, he convincingly disappears into Chris’ uncomfortable skin convincing as an insular, shambling, wreck. Pritchard’s photography is always pin-sharp, but Meeten’s character is a man permanently just out of focus. Depression is a horrible thing to suffer, but it does not reduce people to non-functional mumbling stereotypes, there are troughs and peaks in Chris’ moods through the film even as it moves towards the dark revelation to the persistent mystery lurking in the shadows.
Low budget it may be, but The Ghoul shows that Tunley is not only a talented writer, but has a filmmaker’s eye. While the staging may be sparse, his compositions are interesting and the film has a consistent momentum.
Alongside Stephen Sheil’s Mum & Dad this of my favorite recent UK debut films.
Arrow’s DVD and Blu Ray releases of the film are feature packed. Demonstrating that the company’s admirable commitment to catalog titles carries over to new releases. Extras include: a fascinating documentary on the making of the film including contributions from Tunley, Meeten, Lowe, and executive producer Ben Wheatley; Tunley and Meeten’s short film The Baron, including commentary; and an informative commentary track with Tunley, Meeten and producer Jack Guttman.
For details on Arrow’s DVD/Blu-ray release, visit the Arrow website.