Chris (Tom Meeten) is a crack homicide detective called down to London to investigate a baffling case: a double shooting in which forensic ballistic analysis discovers that the victims kept walking towards the shooter after being shot multiple times. On a hunch Chris suggests looking into Michael Coulson (Rufus Jones) the property agent who manages the rented house the crime took place at; he and fellow investigator Jim (Dan Renton Skinner) discover several things that pique their interest. First up is the fact that Coulson, though he’s never been arrested for anything, has a record of showing up at crime scenes – perhaps he’s just a ghoulish sort who likes to gawk at such things, or maybe, just maybe, he got tired of waiting for a crime scene to happen and decided to make one happen. Second is the fact that Coulson is visiting a therapist, Helen Fisher (Niamh Cusack), whose session notes may well help them ascertain whether the “creepy interest gone too far” angle is at all plausible.
Of course, patient confidentiality being what it is, they can’t just demand Fisher’s records – so with the help of forensic psychologist Kathleen (Alice Lowe – yes, the same one from Darkplace), who happens to be an old flame of his, Chris gets into some deep method acting in order to pose as a patient in order to allow him to get a peek at the files. However, there’s a twist: it turns out Fisher has not made much progress with Coulson, but has instead referred him to the enigmatic Morland (Geoffrey McGivern), a retired master psychiatrist with an intense interest in the occult who occasionally takes on a few patients now and then. So Chris must persist in the pretence in order to get access to Morland, as well as to maintain a curious friendship he’s struck up with Coulson himself, both of which might help him figure out what Coulson’s whole deal with.
Except shortly after Chris starts seeing Morland, he gets an urgent message from Coulson telling him that Morland is dangerous, and that Chris needs to see Coulson urgently so that they can discuss it. Coulson, however, is nowhere to be found – and Chris has found himself drawn into Morland’s peculiar mode of therapy.
At least, that’s one reading The Ghoul offers. But Chris gets so deep into his method acting, to the point where his cover story about Jim being a friend who works for a drinks company and Kathleen being a teacher are, at points, presented to us as if they are real – and he’s certainly living a lifestyle more consistent with him being an unemployed man with severe depression than with his real life, and eventually he’s interacting with Kathleen in a way more consistent with his cover story than the way their interactions are initially presented to us. And as he talks to Fisher, Chris talks about how he daydreams about being a police detective, rather than being a real one.
What we end up with here, then, is a movie that offers two different narratives that each feed into each other, like how if you travel along one side of a Moebius strip you end up on the opposite side, and then back on the original side again if you take it further. On one side of the narrative, you have a police investigator going to personal psychological extremes to uncover a case which turns out to involve an outrageous conspiracy between Fisher and Morland to perpetuate their existence through the occult manipulation of their patients; on the other side, you have the story of a depressed man going through therapy, who personifies his depression as “the ghoul” (just as the police investigation hypothesises that Coulson is a ghoul of a different sort) but whose therapists’ own problems don’t give them the capability to unravel them.
The use of Klein Bottle and Moebius Strip and Ouroborous symbols is a bit of a heavy-handed way to signal the movie’s particular A Scanner Darkly-esque schtick, and whilst it at least it has the decency to have this stuff uttered by Morland himself as part of his eccentric and slightly pretentious patter, the emphasis the movie puts on this stuff makes the final twist more than a little obvious.
Given that we’re in psychological horror land I half expected it to end up turning out that Chris and Coulson were actually the same bipolar individual, Chris the depressive part and Coulson the manic part, but we are at least spared that particular slice of predictability, but otherwise you can call how it’s going to end once you spot that Coulson’s home is clearly the same house that we are told that the shootings took place in at the start of the movie. Whilst the process that takes us to that conclusion is fun enough in its own right, the actual ending lacks impact and feels anticlimactic once you get there. On top of that the concluding images, and in particular our look at Chris utterly losing his shit behind the wheel of his car but unable to do anything but continue driving down that empty night-time road, is such a blatant lift from Lost Highway that it ends up rather jarring.
This is a shame, because otherwise the whole “psychiatrist uses patients for occult mind games” angle could have been quite interesting. Writer-director Gareth Tunley clearly knows his stuff in this area – for instance, the chaos magic practice of sigilisation is depicted clearly and unambiguously, in sufficient detail that viewers could probably give it a go after watching this. Whether you bother or not, The Ghoul is atmospheric enough to be worth a watch, but it’s not a keeper and seems much less clever than it initially appears to be on repeat viewings. Ben Wheatley’s name is prominently displayed in marketing materials as an executive producer, but this is no Kill List.