In British horror cinema, The Ghoul is a perennial title — a Boris Karloff film from 1933 and a Peter Cushing film from 1975 — and writer-director Gareth Tunley knowingly appropriates it for an exercise in fragmented London noir. This The Ghoul begins as a supernaturally tinged detective story then opens out — or closes in — to become a study of depression and paranoia. It’s a film in which everything is provisional, and the progresses of several strains of plot — undercover police investigation, social-realist misery, psychotherapy sessions — function as beats in some sort of occult ritual.
Powerful, disturbing and intense viewing.
Cop Chris (Tom Meeten) turns up at the site of a double murder, where the killer seems to have been spooked by his victims’ ability to stay upright after they’ve been shot. His only lead is Coulson (Jones), a ‘ghoul’ who loiters around crime scenes. Aided by cop partner Jim (Dan Skinner) and profiler Kathleen (Alice Lowe), Chris goes undercover as a depressed, unemployed loser to gain access to the files of Coulson’s ambiguous therapist Helen Fisher (Niamh Cusack). Then, reality seems to shift with the possibility that the protagonist only fantasises he’s a cop on a case. In this reality, Kathleen is Jim’s girlfriend and Chris is creepily hung up on her. But is this the cover story — and the more far-fetched version the truth? Fisher refers Chris to Morland (Geoffrey McGivern), a genially sinister analyst (whose name echoes the character Karloff played in the 1933 The Ghoul) who is also treating the real Coulson (if there is a real Coulson) and talks about alchemy, maths, Möbius strips, paradoxical bottles and secret sigils. In either or both of his identities, Chris strikes up an acquaintance with the manic Coulson, seems to draw Kathleen to him with a magic ritual, names his depression ‘the Ghoul’ and is oppressed by the drab concrete city.
The protagonist’s single-room flat is especially characterless and oppressive, but this makes the riverside, streets and consulting rooms visited by Chris all threateningly bleak. In one scene at a glum party, Paul Kaye delivers a soliloquy anecdote about petty crime and the power of prayer which is either a distraction or the meat of the movie. Everyone is good —McGivern gets man of the match as the most entertaining eccentric and you know how out of whack the world is if Alice Lowe is playing the most normal character. But this is such an interior, solipsistic film that only the intense, impressive Meeten gets to play a character with real depth. Both versions of Chris have the same essence, while everyone else changes their act depending on how paranoid the viewpoint character is about them.
Director Gareth Tunley is also an actor, and a regular in films by executive producer Ben Wheatley. The Ghoul fits into a fringe British cinema of miserablist social-realism psycho-horror which has been quite active lately, for reasons evident to anyone who’s looked at a newspaper in the last few years. It relates a little to Kill List (in which Tunley plays the priest) but also slots comfortably in with a run of Brit-noir pictures with supernatural twists (The Glass Man, A Dark Song, Hyena, The Messenger, The Devil’s Business). There’s a state-of-the-nation aspect to these stories of psychological isolation, and minds cracking as cities decay and social ties are sundered — the horror film offshoots of Broken Britain or Brexit.