The bumper crop of DIY British talent that we’ve had over the past few years has given us so many great future cult classics, from Alice Lowe’s masterful Prevenge, to Ben Wheatley’s glossily deranged High-Rise. They’re part of a large network of actors, directors, and writers who trace their origins back to shows like Peep Show, The Wrong Door, Time Trumpet, and directors like Edgar Wright. Their influences – from the Giallo/Argento gore in Prevenge, to the Mike Leigh esque domesticity abound in something like Down Terrace – are worn on their sleeves, and now comes the turn of Gareth Tunley.
Tunley is perhaps most recognisable for his role in Wheatley’s weird-folk crime film Kill List, where he played one of the lead duo’s victims. Here he writes and directs, whilst Tom Meeton (Prevenge, Sightseers) stars as Chris, a detective investigating a murder that, like the movie itself, defies explanation. Here, two intruders have been shot dead, but appear to have carried on moving after being murdered. It’s a suitably Lynchian premise – The Ghoul’s equivalent of Jeffrey Beaumont finding an ear in the grass – an intrusion of the weird into the film’s mostly murky world of crime.
From the title, you may go into The Ghoul expecting a horror film, and the first half certainly sets the audience up to expect a much more horrific climax than you wind up getting. In fact, The Ghoul has much more in common with films like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, or to an extent, Fight Club. Its horror is rooted in the psychology of the main character, and our perception of the events that take place in the film are very much directed through Chris’ own, rather unreliable eyes.
That crossover between folk horror, crime, and domestic drama is where a filmmaker like Ben Wheatley can comfortably (or uncomfortably) pitch a film, and his influence is all over The Ghoul (unsurprisingly he is credited as a producer on this). But to juggle all of these elements takes skill. Tunley shot most of his film in an incredible ten days, an achievement in itself, and this short timeframe doesn’t do the film any favours. Whilst there are great performances, not least from Meeton himself who gives an incredibly nuanced and complex turn in the lead, the end result is muddy.
There’s a scene midway through the film in which Chris, undercover as a patient, goes for a walk in the woods with the psychologist who is treating him. The psychologist begins reeling off a list of names who have also trudged through the woods – Crowley is mentioned, as is Wordsworth. Tunley wants us to see the connection between the occult and landscape. Towards the end of the film, digital techniques are used on the frame to split it, to create funhouse mirror-esque images. The overt message is clear – that the landscape of the film is changed by something unmentionable. Just as the landscape of the forest could be changed in writing about it, so too can the film. But this feels like a last minute addition, a hastily scrambled together narrative, latched on to something that wasn’t quite working.
The Ghoul is a film that doesn’t really make a great deal of sense, but one that the director wants the audience to think they’re not quite smart enough to understand. There’s plenty to like, from the performances to the cinematography (finding a way to film London that shows the city in a new light is always welcome), but ultimately, there’s too much ambition for the film to ever be able to fully work. Tunley is clearly a talent worth keeping an eye on, but The Ghoul doesn’t reach the heights of Down Terrace, or Prevenge.
Review by Daniel Carpenter
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