Directorial debutant Gareth Tunley’s The Ghoul marks a statement of intent from the Brit, yet ultimately lacks clarity and focus
Earlier this year, Jordan Peele showed the world how to make a debut as director with his socio-thriller/horror, Get Out. An ominous and sharp portrayal of white, American suburbia, it was met with huge critical acclaim. Peele proved that a film with a low budget can still look fantastic and does not have to do anything too outlandish to break the mould and achieve recognition.
The Ghoul sounded like it could follow in a similar vein. Like Peele, Gareth Tunley was a low-key comedy actor. Possibly best known for small roles in Ghoul-producer Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and series such as Peep Show, he has made the transition to film director. Sadly, he has not managed to emulate the success that Peele’s show-stopping horror enjoyed.
Tunley’s debut film as director is ambitious. Tom Meeten plays a homicide detective who, following an undercover investigation which involves posing as a psychotherapist’s patient, becomes subject to existential uncertainty and mental torment.
Early on, we discover that in fact, his life as detective is a fabrication – a day dream he fantasises about. In reality, he suffers from depression, is unemployed, and pines for Alice Lowe’s Kathleen, who is shacked up with his only apparent friend, Jim, played by Dan Renton Skinner. In his fantasy, Jim is a police officer who drafts Chris in to help with cases, and Kathleen is a profiler who the protagonist corresponds and sleeps with.
However, after meeting fellow therapy patient Coulson (Rufus Jones) and the eccentric psychiatrist Morland, played vibrantly by acting veteran Geoffrey McGivern, Chris faces further complexities and conflicts regarding his identity. Could Morland have ulterior and sinister motives? Could the daydream in fact be reality?
It goes without saying that The Ghoul is intriguing and commendably zealous. Unfortunately however, it appears to suffer from the same existential quandary as its leading character.
It seems as if Tunley found himself torn between making a psychological crime thriller, and a socio-dramatic meditation on depression and mental health. Perhaps if it had been billed more as the latter, I might have been more satisfied post-viewing. Sadly, it is yet another example of a production falling victim to misleading marketing and not attracting its true target audience.
Nonetheless, The Ghoul does have its triumphs. The cinematography is shrewd and powerful, at times adopting hand-held techniques which evoke the same sense of unease and turmoil which Chris suffers from. At the film’s climax, we eventually see the world through Meeten’s character’s eyes in a somewhat hallucinogenic and surreal sequence, yet I could not help but wish that this striking and almost kaleidoscopic approach had been utilised more.
Waen Shepherd’s – who has a minor acting role in the film – score is impressive, evoking at times that of David Julyan’s for Memento (2000), or even Twin Peaks’ chilling soundtrack by Angelo Badalamenti.
Not a disastrous first outing as director, but not an amazing debut either. However, there is enough promise and intriguing elements in the film to suggest bigger things to come from Gareth Tunley, and Tom Meeten may find that this is his breakthrough role. The Ghoul is gripping, yet loses sight of its message and narrative.