New to Blu: Arrow Video - The Ghoul (2016)

Fun fact - The Ghoul's poster art
and logo was designed by none
other than Dave "Bollo The
Gorilla" Brown from The Mighty Boosh
Arrow Video has carved out quite the niche for themselves in the last few years as one of the finest labels for lavish special editions of vintage cult and genre films. Yet along the way, every now and then they have surprised us with the debut of a brand-new indie film as well. This fall they brought us one such debut, with the blu-ray release of The Ghoul: a fractured psychological thriller executive produced by Ben Wheatley (High Rise, A Field in England). Muted, dreamlike, unreal, and highly disconcerting, this first feature film by writer/director Gareth Tunley leaves a very strong impression, if you're open to its particular off-kilter wavelength. It certainly won't be for everyone, and even if it is for you, it's probably not what you'll expect (and I mean that in the best way). But if you're the type of psychologically-minded indie film lover who will enjoy Tunley's trip down this rabbit hole, it is one of the fall's must-see films.

The film follows a police detective (Tom Meeten) who goes undercover as a psychiatric patient to try and track down a murder suspect who disappeared, with his therapist as the only lead. But his cover story is that of a mentally-ill man who dissociates into a fantasy where he is a police detective in order to escape his painful existence. As the line between reality and cover story begin to blur, somewhere along the way both the character and the audience lose track of which of these stories is true, and which is a construction; a kaleidoscope of identity in which both protagonist and viewer have no real sense of which way is up, or what is real. The film is boldly disorienting, making the gutsy decision to leave the audience just as unmoored and lost as its troubled main character. It takes on the slippery reality of a dream, and asks the viewer to solve a puzzle with pieces that it keeps rearranging.

"Was it the ball, or was it the saucer from the cup?"

This experimental approach will surely make the film a very divisive one: not everyone is going to like feeling as off-balance as The Ghoul makes you feel for most of its runtime, and its deliberately-paced, sneaky slow-burn style likewise won't be for all tastes. But if you are the sort of person who is going to like The Ghoul, these are two of its biggest assets. Its slowly-unfolding existential mystery is as tantalizing as it is unsettling, and for a first-time director Tunley handles it very well. Ben Wheatley was clearly a stylistic influence on the film as well as the executive producer, and fans of his work will notice some artistic similarities, but Tunley has a very strong voice all his own, and this is a most impressive debut. Cinematographer Benjamin Pritchard's camerawork perfectly matches Tunley's slippery, dreamlike storytelling sensibilities, capturing our troubled protagonist's perspective with ethereal, haunting images of city life turned into a dreamscape. Solidifying this well-crafted tone is the excellent score by Waen Shepherd, which is quite eclectic in its style, but at times is reminiscent of Trent Reznor's more ambient instrumental work.

"I fell into a similar depression when I
found out Luxury Comedy didn't get
renewed for season 3... though
personally, I blame Ice Cream Eyes."
As the character whose increasingly-fractured perspective is the lens through which we see the story, Tom Meeten (who also co-produced the movie) gives a truly excellent performance. Meeten is generally a comedic actor, from the same generation of surrealist British comedians which gave us Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh fame and Richard Ayowade. I know him best from his wonderfully bizarre co-starring role as a stilted, possibly-robotic Andy Warhol on Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy. But in keeping with the wisdom that often comedians make the best, most emotionally-intense dramatic actors, Meeten is brilliant here in a dark, light-on-dialogue and heavy-on-externalized-pain performance. Since much of the film consists of either taciturn therapy sessions or scenes of his character grappling with his emotions alone, he delivers a powerfully show-not-tell performance, and conveys a deep internal struggle in a way which is extremely genuine and believable. He plays a haunted soul perfectly. Actually, most of the rest of the cast consists of comedians as well, despite this being a seriously dark film with almost no humor. Female lead Alice Lowe will be familiar to fans of the stranger reaches of British humor from Ben Wheatley's serial-killer comedy Sightseers and Richard Ayowade's camp-pulp meta-parody Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, as well as Hot Fuzz. Indeed, this whole project originated from a group of friends (including Meeten, Lowe, and Gareth Tunley) who bonded in England's comedy scene, before deciding to dive deep into the most serious pathos of their work with this film. While it marks a major career departure for all of them, they make the shift to downbeat psychological nightmare brilliantly. If ever there was a perfect argument that a strong understanding of comedy gives artists the powerful grasp of human emotion required to make the darkest sort of drama, surely it is The Ghoul.

While this seems like it could easily be the sort of strange, unusual indie feature that has trouble finding a home, The Ghoul found a perfect fit with Arrow Video. Arrow has given the film their usual special edition treatment, with some solid extras. First and foremost is a 40-minute making-of documentary featuring most of the cast and crew, which thoroughly delves into the film's production, and offers a really interesting history of how a bunch of surrealist sketch comedians came to make this most unlikely film. It gives a very genuine, honest, self-deprecating look at how a no-budget indie feature gets made, which should be quite inspiring to any aspiring filmmakers watching, and which will definitely give the viewer an even greater appreciation for the final product: that a film this confident and effective could be shot on a shoestring in the homes of the actors and their family members is seriously impressive. The disc also includes a commentary by Meeten, Tunley, and co-producer Jack Guttman, which gives still more insight into the film's micro-budget indie origins, and is a very entertaining listen, as the three are obviously friends as well as collaborators, and have great chemistry. Rounding out the extras is Tunley and Meeten's dark-comedy short film The Baron, with an optional commentary by the two actor-filmmakers. All in all, Arrow has given the film a very impressive package which helps elevate the indie to the cult status that it certainly deserves. It's great that the company treats new films like this with the same care they give to more established cult classics.

"Ok, fine, I'll stop making jokes in the
captions about a TV show that almost
no Americans have seen..."
While its dreamlike, disorienting style likely won't be for everyone, fans of mind-bending psychological thrillers will find a lot to love in The Ghoul. It's the sort of film that certainly demands multiple viewings to sort out its surreal puzzle structure, and as such Arrow's blu-ray or DVD are highly recommended. While the project had its origins in England's indie comedy scene, its experimental darkness could very well be the career-launch of a new arthouse filmmaker following in the footsteps of executive producer Wheatley. This is a very impressive debut for Gareth Tunley, and it will be exciting to see what he does for his follow-up. It is also an eye-opening dramatic acting debut for Tom Meeten: Luxury Comedy's surreal embodiment of Andy Warhol is unrecognizable in this haunted, brooding performance. This is definitely an actor-filmmaker team to watch out for.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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