The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

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I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

Free Fire: On All Cylinders

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Ben Wheatley keeps making films that I would like to make. His last outing, High Rise (2015) was an adaptation of JG Ballard’s infamous novella, one which I was morbidly enamored with after reading it and have since harbored a secret wish to adapt it to the screen, if I ever was in a position to do that. Well I can cross that one off, and now Mr. Wheatley has grabbed the crime film by the lapels and thrown it back into the limelight, in this tale of a gun deal gone wrong, taking away another cinematic desire of mine.

To be honest I’d probably be upset if he wasn’t doing it so goddamn well.

Free Fire is a film about scoundrels.  All the insects hiding on the underbelly of society, some prettier than others, some who prefer beard oil, but all of them hiding in the dark surfaces underneath the rocks. It’s characters spill all over each other, violently clashing and warring for their egos, and then for their lives. The whole film becomes something of a Chinese spinning plate act, as characters drag themselves around the floor of this abandoned warehouse, all of them slowly bleeding out from various wounds inflicted by the others (when most of them can’t hit anything anyway because shooting people is much harder than most Hollywood films portray). We bear witness as their chances and efforts to actually get out alive grow slimmer and dimmer, and we instead settle into a kind of cathartic rhythm of watching how they perish, and taking solace, joy, sadness and all the rest in between.

And what a cast of characters who pull themselves through it. Ben Wheatley’s ability to draw out the absurd in all of these performers, in Sharlto Copley’s lovable and irritating weapons dealer, Michael Smiley (a Ben Wheatley staple) deadpan old “Grandpa”, Armie Hammer’s smarmy oil slick demeanour, Sam Riley’s laughable smackhead and the list goes on with each actor involved leaving their mark in a way which makes you remember them. Special attention must be given to Brie Larson (the reasons are obvious once you’ve seen the film) and to Noah Taylor because well I just love Noah Taylor.

Honestly though this whole essay could be devoted to just a discussion on the richness and balletic complexity of the characters and their interplay throughout the film, but that would be doing a great disservice to the other elements at play here. The cinematography of Laurie Rose for example, Wheatley’s long time collaborator, helps to bring such a visceral intensity to the proceedings, as the camera keeps itself in the position of the players, low to the ground and confused. Constantly bouncing back and forth around the factory setting, it helps to set up a constant thread of anticipation and tension as you can never quite work out exactly where everyone is or how close they are to each other.

Not just that, but the colour scheme of the film, both in terms of its lighting and in terms of its costume design is gorgeous, this rich gold permeating throughout (even referenced in terms of “the golden hour and a half”, the time period in which medical treatment will likely prevent your death, which is also conveniently this films running time) while the costumes themselves are drenched in 70s style, open shirts and pastel colours abound. It’s just such a gorgeously designed world,  it’s vibrancy there to be looked at rather than just glazed over.

Obviously with a film so skeletal in comparison with some of its action film counterparts of today, there’s not much room for hiding, and if the film’s pace had slacked in any way, the whole ballet would have crashed to the ground. Thankfully this never occurs, mainly due to a clear script and some great manipulations in the editing and the sound design. In terms of its script (which I’d love to read mainly because the amount of “x shoots at y, y shoots at z, ad infinitum”) it’s a lot of pure cinema, just pure action, and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump did a job which he explains in this clip as to how it feels so tight:

As with the editing and sound design, the pace is incredibly well executed, ebbing and flowing not necessarily where you would expect it, but allowing the time for the film to breathe in between its gasping for air shootouts. Really, the editing is the linchpin in a film like this and what a magnificent linchpin it is. Finally the sound design also must be extolled, the gunfire becoming this great cacophony of explosive echoes which are at points near deafening, only punctuated by elements of freeform jazz and a great use of John Denver.

Free Fire is not the most important film ever made, and that’s good because it’s not trying to be. All its trying to be is a good, well crafted film. It’s a film which you can really get lost in, because there’s nothing really outside of its own internal world. And it’s a film which owes its inspirations to other films, from silent cinema to the gangster flicks it evokes. I just think its great cinema, and beyond that, that’s not for me to say.

-Alex

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Free Fire: On All Cylinders