Dir Gareth Tunley, UK 2017 On UK release from 4 August
Having travelled down to London from the north of England, homicide detective Chris (Tom Meeten) is briefed by a colleague at a house where a double murder has occurred. Nothing unusual about that – except both victims continued to move towards their assailant even after they had been shot in the head. The only suspect is an estate agent who is receiving psychiatric care. Chris goes undercover at the same psychotherapist’s to try to steal a glance at the man’s notes in the hope of tracking him down. However, as Chris attends session after session, he starts to question his own life – what he is doing, why is he doing it – and even who he is.
There’s a great conceit at the core of The Ghoul: is our hero the man he imagines himself to be or the man whose identity he is trying to forget? It’s a variation on a classic theme – identity crisis – which is present in works as diverse as Hamlet and Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. In the former, Shakespeare asks us to consider whether Hamlet is mad with grief, or merely pretending, or whether he goes mad as a result of pretending to be so. In Dick’s book, undercover narcotics detective Bob Arctor finds himself developing a split personality as a result of the mind-bending nature of his work.
When his psychotherapist is taken ill, Chris is advised to see Professor Morland (the wonderfully creepy Geoffrey McGivern). Morland is a quite different type of shrink: matey, chatty and with a disconcertingly encyclopedic knowledge of the occult. They take walks together in the woods where Morland delights in pointing out the cosmic significance of the locations they visit. But, as you might have guessed, Morland is not all that he seems.
This part of the film is where it shifts from being a psychological thriller into something else altogether. The occult and mythological references take it from the interesting but familiar into the realms of the deeply mysterious. The foreboding sense of being under threat from ancient and unknowable forces reminded me of the excellent first season of the US crime drama True Detective – and praise doesn’t come much higher than that from me.
There are flaws, of course, but they are minor. The final 20-odd minutes are something of an anticlimax, but having said that the film does manage to sustain its unsettling tone to the end. Overall, this is an intriguing drama with a terrific central idea and which isn’t content to take up residence in any particular genre. Rather like executive producer Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, it starts off in one direction only to wrong-foot the viewer and subtly move off in another. Not only that but it does so in a way which, despite the fantastic and bizarre subject matter, does in a way which keeps the whole enterprise grounded in a recognisable and yet disturbed reality. Recommended.