Director/Screenplay – Gareth Tunley, Producers – Jack Guttman, Tom Meeten & Gareth Tunley, Photography – Benjamin Pritchard, Music – Waen Shepherd, Makeup Effects Design – Emily Grove, Art Direction – Matthew Clark. Production Company – Primal Pictures.
Tom Meeten (Chris), Geoff McGivern (Alexander Morland), Rufus Jones (Michael Coulson), Alice Lowe (Kathleen), Niamh Cusack (Helen Fisher), Dan Skinner (Jim), Paul Kaye (Tommy), James Eyres Kenward (Drez), Rachel Stubbings (Marla)
The police detective Chris is asked to take a baffling case involving the shooting of a couple in their home. The killer is believed to be a man named Coulson but the only clue to his whereabouts is that he is attending sessions with psychologist Helen Fisher. Chris goes to consult his ex Kathleen, a forensic psychologist, about how to fake the symptoms of depression. He then pretends to be a patient in order to sneak in to Helen’s office to read Coulson’s file. During his sessions with Helen and later Alexander Morland, Chris begins to open up and tell how he has fantasies in which he is a police detective and his being there is part of an investigation. In this reality, Kathleen is a now-married woman he has had a crush on since university and stalks. He also follows Coulson who sees Chris and befriends him. Coulson, a diagnosed bipolar, also presses Chris into seeing that Fisher and Morland are powerful beings that manipulate the reality of their patients as a means of gaining immortality.
The Ghoul was a directorial debut for Gareth Tunley. Tunley had made one short film and directed some tv work before this, although has far more credits as an actor. Among other works, Tunley made small appearance in several films for Ben Wheatley – Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012). Wheatley also acts as an executive producer on The Ghoul.
The tile The Ghoul leads you to expect far more of a horror film than you actually get. A ghoul is a creature from Arabic mythology that is supposed to frequent graveyards in order to devour human flesh. The term was taken to mean a graverobber during the 19th Century. These days a ghoul is more commonly taken to mean something akin to a zombie or a revenant or at the very least a creepy individual. To add to the confusion, in the film here ‘the ghoul’ is simply a name that Tom Meeten chooses to give his depression. There have been two films that this film shares its title with – neither related – the Boris Karloff-starring Old Dark House film The Ghoul (1933) and the Anglo-horror film The Ghoul (1975) with Peter Cushing.
The Ghoul begins deceptively. We are introduced to Tom Meeten as a police detective who is asked to solve a baffling double murder and is assigned to go undercover as a patient with psychologist Niamh Cusack to find out about the mysterious Coulson. We see him going to consult forensic profiler Alice Lowe about how to fake symptoms of mental illness and then attending sessions. This is set up sufficiently that we continue to believe the undercover detective story for some way in.
However, cracks then start to appear – the first being when Meeten confesses to Niamh Cusack during a session that he has elaborate fantasies about playing at being a detective. We then see him, still as the depressed and withdrawn patient he is meant to be play-acting, stalking and contriving to meet Alice Lowe who had previously been the profiler advising him. As they talk, we suddenly connect up that she is also the girl from university he mentioned having been interested in once during a session. He also trails Coulson who realises he is being followed and instead befriends Meeten where we soon realise he may just be another patient as opposed to a wanted murderer.
As the film goes on, we realises what we are watching is a mindfuck of the first order. Gradually, the story about Meeten as a detective gets de-emphasised and you start to realise that what we thought to be the case at the outset is actually the fantasy he is play-acting and that the depressed patient is the real Meeten. Or maybe. There starts to be another weird level to the film where Rufus Jones convinces Meeten that the two psychologists are messing with him and that they are really beings that gain immortality by distorting and then inhabiting other people’s realities. On the other hand, this could just be the deluded imaginings of someone who is bipolar, although we then see predictions coming true that indicate this interpretation might be right. This is all buttressed by numerous references to Moebius Strips, Klein Bottles and Ouroboros Worms, all images of geometric illusions that feed back into themselves. All before the film arrives at an ending that proceeds to do exactly that.