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D: Gareth Tunley / 82m

Cast: Tom Meeten, Dan Renton Skinner, Rufus Jones, Alice Lowe, Niamh Cusack, Geoffrey McGivern, James Eyres, Paul Kaye

It’s very, very difficult to keep one step ahead of audiences today, what with narrative twists and turns coming at us thick and fast in what feels like every other movie (so much so that we’re looking out for them all the time), and with the Internet being a boundless source of spoilers and inappropriate info. Any movie that tries to hoodwink its audience, or lead them down the path marked ‘astray’, will inevitably stand or fall by the quality of its deception, and the way in which viewers are misled. Show them one thing and then show them something else that brings the first thing into question and you have a mystery. Show them one thing and then another and then another and keep everything vague and unknowable – until the end – and you have a head scratcher.

A head scratcher is what The Ghoul presents us with early on. Chris (Meeten), a police detective, arrives at a quiet suburban house that has become a crime scene. His partner, Jim (Skinner), tells a disturbing, impossible story: a burglar, surprised by the owners, shoots both of them… and neither of them dies, not until he flees the scene. Chris is a taciturn individual, wrapped up in himself and his thoughts, thoughts that make him look in the direction of the lettings agent, Michael Coulson (Jones), who has been helpful in the early stages of their investigation. When they try to talk to him, they find that on one wall of his flat is a collage of notes and pictures that indicate he’s seeing a psychotherapist, Dr Fisher (Cusack). Chris decides to go undercover and try and find out about Coulson through his seeing Fisher. A friend of his, a forensics officer, Kathleen (Lowe), helps with his fictional pathology, and soon Chris is seeing Dr Fisher as well. And through his visits, he meets Coulson, and the two strike up an initially uneasy friendship. Soon they are both seeing another therapist, Dr Morland (McGivern), and Coulson starts behaving strangely, accusing Morland of having an alternative and sinister reason for treating them both. And soon, Coulson’s paranoia begins to show itself in Chris’s behaviour as well…

Up to a point, fans of psychological thrillers and intriguing mysteries will be kept enthralled by Gareth Tunley’s debut feature as writer/director. There’s not much precedent in British detective fiction or movies for a detective to go undercover as a patient needing psychotherapy in order to find out if a potential witness is also complicit in a crime. But it’s not until much later that Tunley reveals the reason why Chris does this and why the few people around him – Jim, Kathleen – don’t have any objections to the idea, or think it’s a strange way of tracking down a man who can help them with their enquiries. The average viewer may well find this approach to be dramatically unsound, but Tunley is more interested in making the viewer question Chris’s state of mind rather than his investigative methods (though both are linked). But then there’s that point mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, and once the movie reaches that moment, it takes a turn that encourages bafflement and bewilderment, and quite deliberately.

At a session with Dr Fisher, Chris reveals that he sometimes daydreams about being a detective. In his head he’s created characters from people he knows, such as Kathleen, who in reality (or so it seems) is a teacher and not a forensics officer. It’s at this point that the movie mutates from being a dour, unconventional police procedural into an unsettling excursion into the mind of a man who may not be a police detective at all, and who may just be someone in need of help in dealing with manic depression or hallucinatory episodes or an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Chris also says he knows his daydreams aren’t real – but are they? That’s the question the movie wants the viewer to be asking themselves, and as it moves further and further into a world that offers few concrete answers, the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of an ominous horror movie.

Thanks to a non-linear narrative, and Tunley’s decision to include several moments where time and memory become disjointed, Chris’s investigation begins to unravel and fall apart. And so does Chris. He becomes more and more insular, saying less and less and bowing his head as if trying to hide. Soon the viewer will have to decide which narrative strand is the real one: Chris as a police officer, or Chris as an ordinary man suffering from depression (who thinks he’s a police officer). There are clues as to which strand is the correct one, and the inclusion of visual motifs such as a Klein bottle, and an ouroboros, provide strong evidence for what’s happening over all, but Tunley does his best to keep everything blurred and out of focus, both for Chris and the viewer. That he doesn’t succeed entirely is due to the number of aforementioned clues, several of which spell things out quite clearly, and a need to shoehorn Chris into the events of the last ten minutes where his fate is revealed and the tension is amped up considerably.

Tunley invokes a stylish mix of visuals, with avant-garde imagery jostling side by side with gothic expressionism and a dash of magical realism. It’s a heady concoction, prone to lapsing into the kind of fractured, portentous imagery that wouldn’t look out of place in a found-footage movie (where the camera is in the hands of someone who’s running with it). There’s also a subdued Twilight Zone kind of vibe to the material, with Chris heading for the kind of uncomfortable denouement that will see him revealed as a pawn in a much larger game. The character is played in a brooding, melancholic, and abstract manner by Meeten, a performance that is largely internalised, but which still allows Chris’s pain to reveal itself. Meeten is like a forlorn, lonely ghost, one that seeks the company of the living but then doesn’t know how to connect with them. Meeten’s performance is a massive plus for the movie, and Tunley exploits his star’s morbidly depressed approach to Chris in a way that reveals often contradictory mannerisms that help support both notions surrounding the truth of his situation. He’s ably supported by the likes of Lowe and McGivern, and there’s a bitter poignancy to Chris’s scenes with Kathleen that works extremely well in grounding the character’s otherwise wayward emotions and feelings.

Rating: 8/10 – though not a movie for everyone, and one that could be accused of creating an artificial mood throughout, The Ghoul is nevertheless an intriguing if overly bleak treatise on the nature of mental illness as a doorway to a different reality; Tunley directs with a confidence that allows the narrative to play out in its own way and time (much like Chris’s fate), and to keep the viewer from becoming too comfortable – much like Chris himself, who thanks to Meeten, remains an unlikely, yet memorable movie creation.