You’ve may not have realised it, but you’ve probably seen Gareth Tunley plenty of times on television. He’s appeared in everything from Hustle and The Thick of It to Peep Show (memorably as “more cor anglais” Gog) in the last decade. It turns out Tunley, perpetually stuck in bit parts, has now moved behind the camera and made a curiously intense psychological thriller called The Ghoul. It’s a feature-length debut of huge promise that haunts the darkest recesses of your mind long after it’s finished.
There’s a distinctly Ben Wheatley-esque atmosphere to The Ghoul. This is unsurprising considering Wheatley and Tunley have worked together both on this film, where Wheatley serves as an executive producer, and on Down Terrace and Kill List. Yet rather than churn out a watered-down tribute to Wheatley, Tunley gives The Ghoul a distinct personality.
The Ghoul follows detective Chris (Tom Meeten) as he’s called to investigate a baffling double murder in a London home. With the sole clue a shady stranger seen outside the house, Chris goes undercover as a patient to see the suspect’s psychotherapist. But once the sessions begin, our understanding of who Chris is comes into question. What follows is a slow-burn journey into a fractured mind where reality and dreams blur into a nightmarish landscape of paranoia.
To speak of The Ghoul in purely narrative terms is pointless. Much like Joseph Sims-Dennett’s Observance, which screened at the 2015 London Film Festival, The Ghoul is almost exclusively about cultivating atmosphere and mood. Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy is the obvious reference point for The Ghoul as its aesthetics and techniques mirror the inner turmoil of the central character. There are brushes with the occult and the paranormal, but the film resonates most powerfully as an extension of Chris’ state of mind.
Despite the deliberately disorientating narrative and fleeting brushes with the occult, The Ghoul exists most impressively as an allegory for depression. There’s a sense of utter hopelessness that’s captured in Meeten’s brutally honest performance. As Chris, he’s sheepish and sad without ever being pathetic or maudlin. His face is marred by craters and crevasses that hide secrets and melancholy in the dark shadows cast by Tunley and cinematographer Benjamin Pritchard’s expressive use of lighting. Equally brooding is Waen Shepherd’s synth score which never stops humming with ominous intent.
The marketing pamphlet vision of London as a bustling cosmopolitan is displaced by a washed out landscape of darkened alleys devoid of life. Pritchard’s camera tracks through the streets in awe of the looming brick structures that seem to dwarf all life. Ever changing locations and swift jump cuts only add to Chris’ deep sense of entrapment. He’s forever walking in circles, seemingly imprisoned in his own mind. Chris’ eccentric and devilishly witty psychologist, Morland (Geoffrey McGivern), ruminates on non-orientable objects like the Möbius Loop and Klein Bottles. These motifs only reinforce Chris’ despair.
Though The Ghoul sounds ostensibly grim, there is humour in Tunley’s script — his extensive work in comedy a vital antidote to the darker influences. Morland’s arrival prompts the film’s funniest moments. McGivern is in scintillating comic form as he drops bizarre anecdotes, dirty ditties and a strong disdain for “gay teas.” His charming off-the-wall demeanour is a strong counterpoint to Chris’ shoe-gazing shyness, the combination of which makes for a compelling exchange when the two clash in therapy. It’s Tunley’s ability to seamlessly shift the mood and tone that makes The Ghoul so quietly thrilling when it could easily fall back on painfully dour.
The looping themes ultimately come full circle in a highly ambiguous climax. There’s inevitable befuddlement to be found in the final moments of the movie, but The Ghoul’s success isn’t reliant on a succinct, linear narrative. The beauty of the film is the way it revels in Chris’ splintered state. Tunley lets Chris’ psychology envelop the film, allowing us to immerse ourselves in his depression. It’s a hypnotic, haunting watch that echoes not just contemporaries Ben Wheatley and Richard Ayoade, but iconic abstraction of the great Nicholas Roeg. Tunley’s The Ghoul is a conversation starter and a thought provoker, and that’s the sign of a great film and a burgeoning director.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article is part of a series of articles covering the 2016 London Film Festival.