The Ghoul

The Ghoul (2016)

The Ghoul first published by Sight & Sound, August 2017

Review: “People who suffer from depression often feel they’ve always felt this way. Like they’re trapped in a circle.”

So says the psychotherapist Helen Fisher (Niamh Cusack) to her withdrawn, halting patient Chris (Tom Meeten). What Fisher does not realise is that Chris is an undercover police detective merely feigning mental illness to access the files on another of Fisher’s patients, Michael Coulson (Rufus Jones). Helped by his investigative partner Jim (Dan Renton Skinner) and psychological profiler Kathleen (Alice Lowe), Chris is trying to identify the killer in his latest case, a domestic double murder whose mysterious details do not add up. First, though, he must find the elusive Coulson, a ‘ghoul’ or person unhealthily obsessed with crime scenes.

Or here is an alternative scenario: Chris is a chronic depressive who merely daydreams about being a detective on a case, and who regularly visits the psychotherapist Fisher to mutter about his unhappiness and alienation. Kathleen is an old friend from university in Manchester whose obliviousness to Chris’ love for her is at the root of his problems. Jim is his best friend – and Kathleen’s long-term boyfriend. And Coulson is another patient of Fisher’s whose particular condition makes a toxic mix with Chris’.

In other words, writer/director Gareth Tunley (an actor in Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace and Kill List) offers us not one but two diegetic routes through his feature debut The Ghoul, the one paved in genre, the other in a more banal realism. While from early on it is clear – and meant to be clear – which is the master narrative and which the slave, the decision to present and interweave both through Chris’ addled perspective ensures that fantasy continues to contaminate the most grounded of sequences, and vice versa. Here London is shot by DP Benjamin Pritchard, often at low angle, as a disorienting labyrinth that engulfs and entraps Chris as he tries to find his way through a perplexing puzzle created by his own fugitive mind.

When Fisher becomes ill, she entrusts her patient Chris (and Coulson) to the care of her semi-retired colleague and mentor Alexander Morland (Geoffrey McGivern). A disarmingly jovial and unconventional therapist who takes a ‘whatever works’ approach to his sessions (including metaphors of magic), Morland is the one who articulates, however obliquely, the involuted workings of the film’s peculiar looping structure. For in discussing the paradoxical forms of the Klein glass (“it’s got no insider or outside”), the Ouroboros, ‘eternal return‘ and the Möbius strip, he asks Chris to imagine an ant walking along a Möbian surface: “He’d end up back where he started, without ever crossing an edge, or turning back. Pretty weird for the ant.” This also perfectly describes the viewer’s experience of accompanying Chris on his own strange trip, in which reality and delusion wrap and warp into one another on parallel tracks. There is a skew-whiff circularity to this lost highway, beginning and ending in the same place: the M1 leading both into London from the North, and back out again (the ‘North Circular’ which it crosses in either direction might easily have served as a subtitle for The Ghoul). As Chris tries to navigate the dual carriageway of his mind, using two different hermeneutic maps which, enfolded together, reveal the nightmare both of his damaged brain and of his life, Chris is both the bewildered ant, and the titular ghoul, doomed to haunt a crime scene which he only ever half-understands but which keeps drawing him back in an eternal return.

Compensating for its small budget with big ideas and a bold method of storytelling, The Ghoul front-loads its paradigm-shifting twist (Chris is only imagining that he is a detective with a suspicious past), allowing Tunley to concentrate his focus on the antihero’s spiralling descent into a madness that is never quite escapism. As the twinned plot gradually unravels along with Chris’ fracturing psyche, much of the versatile cast is required to play double rôles, while London herself is made an infernal character, her maze-like streets and towerscapes, canals and stairwells, ensnaring a protagonist who neither belongs nor can leave. Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy (2005), Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and Omer Fast’s Remainder (2015) are all evoked by the film’s heady mix of mental illness and imposture – and the result is an impressively melancholic, brain-bending tragedy whose convolutions are well worth revisiting through multiple circuits, whether in your spinning head or in subsequent rewatches.

Synopsis: London, the present. Chris fantasises that he is a detective who has returned from the North to investigate a mysterious double homicide, and is feigning mental illness to gain access to psychotherapist Helen Fisher’s patient file on person-of-interest Michael Coulson. In fact Chris is a chronic depressive who has moved to London from Manchester, casually stalking his one-time fellow student Kathleen – who now lives with his best friend Jim. Chris sees Fisher regularly, but makes little progress. Shortly after he meets Coulson, who is another of Fisher’s patents, Chris learns that they are both to be referred to psychotherapist Alexander Morland while Fisher recovers from illness. Coulson compares notes with Chris, and invites him to a party with his drug-dealing friends, where a stoned Chris hooks up with Maria.

Under the unconventional Morland’s care, Chris shows signs of improvement. After a discussion with Morland about paradoxical objects and magic, Chris tries creating a magic sigil to make Kathleen his. Shortly afterwards, Kathleen kicks philandering Jim out, and spends more time with Chris. Yet as Chris gets better, Coulson suggests to him that Fisher and Morland are seeking to create in the mind of a patient an infernal loop where they will live forever. Reconciled, Jim and Kathleen move back up North together. Upset, Chris purchases a gun and shoots Morland and Fisher in Morland’s home, convinced that they are malevolent demons. His attempt to flee North by car merely sends him in a loop back to London.

© Anton Bitel