Ben Wheatley collaborator Gareth Tunley makes his writer-director debut with this eerie psycho-thriller about a haunted detective.
A British micro-budget nerve-jangler that keeps viewers guessing to the final frame, The Ghoul is a noir-flavored mood piece with grand ambitions beyond its minimal means. It marks the feature debut of actor-turned-director Gareth Tunley, known for his roles in Ben Wheatley’s early films Down Terrace and Kill List, with which it shares a certain threadbare retro-horror aesthetic. Wheatley is credited as executive producer here, while the cast and crew include several of his regular collaborators, notably co-star Alice Lowe (Sightseers, Prevenge) and editor Robin Hill.
Currently playing in British theaters after picking up positive festival buzz, The Ghoul also has a North American distribution deal in place with Arrow Films. But despite a time-looping, reality-twisting, psycho-horror plot which nods to David Lynch, Roman Polanski, Christopher Nolan and other masters, it feels a little too slight and cryptic to make any serious headway with mainstream genre fans. Returns are likely to be modest, although the Wheatley and Lowe connections should boost interest in cult connoisseur circles.
Tom Meeten (Paddington) stars as Chris, an off-duty homicide detective summoned back to London to lend unofficial assistance to a former colleague puzzling over a mysterious robbery in which two elderly victims were shot at point blank range. Because the chief suspect is a property manager undergoing psychotherapy, Chris goes undercover as a patient himself in a bid to sniff out clues from their shared therapist, Fisher (Niamh Cusack). But in the process he succumbs to some unresolved psychological issues of his own, including the lingering emotional trauma of splitting from his ex-partner Kathleen (Lowe).
As deep-cover role-play begins to consume his entire personality, Chris becomes almost catatonic with depression. He also proves to be an increasingly unreliable narrator whose detective backstory may be a delusional symptom of mental illness: “I’m off the force but I still solve crimes,” he protests, but Tunley’s teasingly opaque screenplay hints otherwise. He switches to a new therapist, the creepily jocular Moorland (Geoff McGivern), whose avuncular manner conceals a sinister interest in occult rituals, shadowy conspiracies and implanted memories. Pushed to the brink of breakdown by escalating paranoia and shadowy enemies, Chris finally resorts to lethal violence.
The Ghoul is an effective exercise in controlled suspense and gradually intensifying weirdness, but it never quite delivers on its mind-bending promise. While Tunley proves adept at investing drab rooms and rainy streets with a steady hum of low-level menace, his squeezed budget inevitably saps some of the story’s potential energy. Meeten’s brooding performance makes Chris a compellingly haunted antihero, and Waen Shepherd’s percussive electro-orchestral score works well as a sonic analogue for his fractured mental state, but the screenplay leaves too many question marks dangling. Tunley confirms his mastery of macabre moods here. Now he needs a bigger budget and a broader canvas.