What if a crime scene appeared to suggest that a pair of bodies had continued to move after being fatally shot in the head? That’s the premise of British actor-turned-director Gareth Tunley’s debut “The Ghoul,” a haunting psychological drama that initially comes on like a down-to-earth cop mystery that may or may not have a logical explanation, but soon takes a left turn into stranger territory. Strong reactions out of early U.K. fest screenings for the yet-to-be-acquired title — given an additional profile boost by the attachment of Ben Wheatley as executive producer — suggest a bid for a wider audience could reap rewards for an enterprising distributor.
A set of interconnected writers and performers, mutually drawn to the dark or absurd, are currently having a moment in British film. They include multi-hyphenate Alice Lowe, whose directorial debut “Prevenge” recently opened Critics’ Week at Venice, and Steve Oram, Lowe’s co-star and co-writer in Wheatley’s “Sightseers,” who last year directed Lowe, Julian Barratt and Tom Meeten in the simian-madness comedy “Aaaaaaaah!.” Barratt and Simon Farnaby co-wrote the retro TV-focused satire “Mindhorn,” which recently premiered at the London Film Festival alongside “The Ghoul” — which also stars Meeten and Lowe. All these talents got their start at the now defunct Ealing Live, an unassuming sketch and character comedy night in west London. It’s heartening to see alumni of such an an unstarry collective assume the positions of prominence in the British industry that have traditionally have been the preserve of Cambridge Footlights (and to a lesser extent Oxford Revue) comics. (Lowe, Tunley and Barratt and Farnaby, furthermore, all secured British Independent Film Award nominations for their efforts.)
Of this new Ealing mob, Tunley is possibly the least known, having scored minor role in TV comedies “Peep Show” and “The Wrong Door,” as well as Wheatley’s “Down Terrace” and “Kill List.” Yet with “The Ghoul”, which he scripts as well as directing, he emerges as one of British cinema’s most interesting new voices.
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Despite the title, “The Ghoul” is not a horror movie — rather, it’s scary in the manner of David Lynch films, with the chills coming from a nightmarish repurposing of the mundane or suburban. As the film opens, we’re in a world familiar from British cop dramas. Meeten plays Chris, a low-key, reasonably likeable police officer investigating a weird murder case in which a supernatural intervention appears to be the only possible explanation. Meeten’s easily underrated ability to project unremarkable ordinariness is a boon here, obscuring the direction that the film is really heading in for longer than might otherwise be possible.
Of course, it’s when his character shifts gears into mentally troubled territory that he really brings depth and range to a character both naturalistic and slightly otherworldly. It’s a film that repays watching more than once. Deceptively constructed, it’s not until some distance into the narrative that the audience can begin to wrap their heads around the way it has been put together — though to say too much more could spoil things for viewers.
Craft elements are necessarily constrained by budget and an apparently spartan shooting schedule, but there’s enough flair to spare here that we’re left wondering what could be achieved with even a modest level of investment — something along the lines of a standard Blumhouse production spend, say. Indeed, remake rights are certainly something U.S. industry bodies should consider: The property seems likelier to travel widely this way than as-is on the global distribution circuit.
“The Ghoul” isn’t the midnight horror romp its title may suggest and as such might disappoint a crowd with an appetite for shock and gore — it needs to be positioned subtly by distributors and festival programmers who may wish to lean more heavily on the apt Lynch comparisons from early reactions. Its twisty-turny psychological gymnastics should satisfy fans of oblique, “Lost Highway”-style material more than full-on horror-heads.