Film Review – The Ghoul
There’s a certain kind of horror film that is distinctly British: occult driven and somewhat ambiguous, with the participants deep down unsurprised about the goings on based on a shared cultural heritage of paganism. (I’d actually really love to see one of these films with a non-white immigrant as the protagonist coming upon a situation they simply cannot understand using a rational worldview.) The best of these films is probably 1973’s Wicker Man, about a police sergeant who, in the course of his investigations, comes across a group practicing a very old religion that could only exist in the British Isles. (This is respectfully spoofed in 2007s Hot Fuzz.) The most frustrating example I’ve seen recently was Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which I was totally on board with until it’s lame-o, frustrating ending. He’s a producer on Gareth Tunley’s first feature film, The Ghoul, which both hit and missed for me in equal measure.
In The Ghoul, Chris (Tom Meeten) is a police detective who is brought in on a troublesome case involving a man who shoots two intruders who fail to respond to the bullets until he runs out of the building. Chris suspects the property manager Coulson (Rufus Jones) is involved somehow, so he goes undercover to get closer to Coulson’s psychiatrist, Dr Fisher (Niamh Cusack) and befriends the property manager in the process. During one of his sessions with Fisher, Chris reveals that he has depression and often fantasizes about being a policeman. So, is he a policeman dreaming he is a depressed patient, or is he a man struggling with his mental health dreaming he is a policeman? Eventually, Dr. Fisher needs to hand his care off to another psychiatrist, Dr. Morland (Geoffrey McGivern) who is not above using a little sympathetic magic to help get his patients on the right track. Coulson, however, believes something much more sinister is going on and starts to act more and more erratically, dragging Chris into his paranoid fears.
This film has great atmosphere and performances, but just didn’t do it for me, and I will tell you why. I loathe the ambiguous horror ending. I don’t need everything to be explained and each little thread tied up, but I don’t like leaving a movie not understanding what happened in the last five minutes of the film. This is often an issue with horror films – and while The Ghoul’s classification as horror could be considered debatable I guess (one article described it as a psychological thriller) it certainly uses horror devices to tell its story – I consider it to be a failure in storytelling and not simply a stylistic decision. And the story lines Tunley DOES choose to wrap up contribute to the film’s narrative murkiness.
There are three main questions the film asks and then answers to varying degrees:
1) Is Chris a cop or just fantasizing about it? I think the film does answer this question, and I wish it hadn’t. More ambiguity here would have made sense to keep the viewer on their toes.
2) Is Coulson setting up situations where people die for his own amusement? Is he, in fact, a metaphorical ghoul? This gets dropped, and it’s a shame. Had the first question been kept more ambiguous, emphasis on this might have added more fun to the puzzle.
3) Are the doctors up to no good? I dunno. The last bits of this film have left me annoyingly befuddled.
There is one other thing about this film that really bugged me, and that is the casting of Alice Lowe as Chris’s love interest Kathleen. Lowe brings a sharp intelligence to everything she is in, and it’s a total waste to cast her as a generic nothing woman. So I guess really, that’s another failure in the writing for me.
Yeah, I know I’ve gone on a bit about what I didn’t like, but the truth is I enjoyed a lot of it right up until the end. The pace is pretty slow, but it’s got that witchy British atmosphere I love so much. And I especially liked Geoffrey McGivern’s performance as the avuncular Dr. Morland. He’s so damn peppy I’d suspect him of being up to something right off the bat. I think Tunley’s direction is pretty strong for a first feature film; I just wish the script was as good. He’s a director to keep an eye on, but this just didn’t succeed for me. If you are into moody British horror and you enjoy twisty turny things AND you don’t mind things not making sense, then you should give this one a shot. But be forewarned, it comes with a certain amount of frustration.