Antonia Campbell-Hughes, archival footage, archivists, Calum Heath, Carl Shaaban, Ceiri Torjussen, cheating partners, children in peril, cinema, dead children, dramas, father-son relationships, film reviews, films, foreign films, Hannah Hoekstra, haunted bathrooms, horror, horror films, human sacrifice, husband-wife relationship, infidelity, Irish films, Ivan Kavanagh, Kelly Byrne, Movies, Piers McGrail, Robin Hill, Rupert Evans, sewer tunnels, Sinister, Steve Oram, supernatural, The Canal, The Ring, twist ending, UK films, writer-director
Here’s a bit of friendly advice, free of charge and as heartfelt as the day is long: should there ever come a time when you’re in the market for a house and discover creepy video footage of terrible acts being committed in said house…go find another damn house. I mean, sure: this particular place might have hardwood floors, a nice backyard, good schools, a progressive city council and easy access to public transportation. If, however, it was also a place where people were tortured/murdered/sacrificed/et al, well…is linoleum really that bad?
While there have been a handful of films that have utilized the above trope to good effect, perhaps none have been more recently popular than Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012), in which Ethan Hawke moves his family into a former “murder house” and shit gets all kinds of…you know…sinister. On the heels of that surprise smash (with a sequel scheduled for sometime in the near future), we get Irish writer-director Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal (2014), in which a husband/father discovers that his family’s new(ish) home might have more than a few secrets of its own. Similar to Derrickson’s film in some pretty substantial ways, The Canal still manages to carve out its own path, paralleling the sad dissolution of a marriage with the eerie happenings in and around a creepy house and the adjoining canal.
We first meet our hapless hero, David (Rupert Evans), as he and his pregnant wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra), are just about to buy the aforementioned creepy house. Flash forward five years and David, Alice and their now five-year-old son, Billy (Calum Heath), seem content in their abode, although we get hints of trouble in paradise. In particular, David and Alice seem to have a strained relationship that includes her getting late-night calls from “clients,” one of whom, a strapping young lad named Alex (Carl Shaaban), seems to be just a little too close for comfort to David’s lady-love.
As these dramatic developments are unfolding, David’s day-job suddenly inserts itself into the equation. You see, David and his partner, Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), are film archivists and they’ve just got in a new batch of old police films, one of which takes place in the very house that David, Alice and Billy call home. It appears that a husband murdered his philandering wife, was jailed, escaped and proceeded to hunt down and slaughter his own son and the boy’s nanny. Faster than you can whisper “sinister,” David has become obsessed with the case, the grisly details of which have begun to seep into his dreams.
Opting to follow his hunch, David trails Alice, one night, and his worst fears are confirmed when he witnesses her making the beast with two backs with handsome, ol’ Alex. Utterly destroyed, David slouches away and winds up at the undeniably creepy public restroom, next to the canal by his house, where he and his young son once threw stones at “ghosts.” While sobbing in a stall, David is confronted by a mysterious figure who intones the suitably chilling “The Master wants you.” Racing out, he seems to be just in time to witness his wife grappling with someone by the water’s edge.
When his wife never comes home that night, David calls the police and ends up in the gravitational pull of one Detective McNamara (Steve Oram), a cagey, soft-spoken Irish Columbo who gets one of the film’s best lines: “People always suspect the husband. You know why that is? Because it’s always the fucking husband.” Needless to say, McNamara doesn’t buy David’s story of a mysterious assailant or bathroom visitation for one minute: from the jump, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a bulldog with a bone and has no intention of dropping his “prize” whatsoever, especially once Alice’s body is hauled up from the canal.
As David tries to keep his life together, with the endless assistance of long-suffering, pot-smoking nanny Sophie (Kelly Byrne), he digs deeper and deeper into the history of his house. Turns out that the aforementioned husband and wife weren’t the only tragedies in the home’s past: there’s a virtual laundry list of previous crimes, atrocities and terrible acts, including a woman who burned her own child alive but insists that “demons” did it. David becomes convinced that the house (and adjoining canal) are all part of a terrible child sacrifice conspiracy, a terrifying tradition of evil that he, Alice and Billy have, unwittingly, become part of. To make matters worse (better?), David sees all manner of strange, creepy figures around the house, especially once he begins to film supposedly empty rooms with an old-fashioned movie camera.
With Claire and Sophie worried about his sanity and McNamara doing his damnedest to put him into jail, David knows that the only way to clear his name is to uncover the hideous paranormal monstrosities at the heart of it all. Is David really getting a peep into a murderous, ghostly phantasmagoria or is he just as insane and guilty as McNamara assumes? To find out, David will need to do the unthinkable: he’ll need to go into the murky, seemingly bottomless depths of the canal. Will he find salvation…or doom?
Exceptionally well-made, if always a little too obvious, writer-director Kavanagh’s The Canal is the latest in a series of austere, serious-minded and atmospheric horror films that include the likes of Absentia (2011), The Pact (2011) and Oculus (2013), among others. As with the rest of these “New Wave of Atmospheric Horror” (NWoAH, patent pending) films, The Canal looks and sounds great: the colors are bright and vibrant (the color palette switches between reds and blues, depending on David’s current state of mind), cinematographer Piers McGrail (who also shot the highly lauded Let Us Prey (2014)) shoots some truly lovely footage and the sense of creeping unease is thick from the jump.
The acting is solid, with Evans and Oram leading the pack, albeit from two completely opposite sides of the coin: Evans perfectly portrays the combined despair, agony, fear, rage and sorrow within David, leading to a performance that’s truly three-dimensional, even if the whole thing is colored in shades of gray and black. Oram, on the other hand, is like a breath of fresh air, a vibrant, alive, cynical and altogether awesome police presence who provides a perfect foil for David and a great source of association for the audience.
Between these towering presences, the rest of the cast acquits themselves nicely (Campbell-Hughes is especially great as David’s partner/only friend), although a few of the characters (Alice’s mother comes immediately to mind) are so under-developed as to be more plot points than real people. I also wish that Hoekstra got a little more to do: there are a few nicely emotional moments between her and David but, by and large, the focus is squarely on him, not her. Due to this, Alice comes across as more of a “bad guy” than anything: since we never get to spend much time with her, the decision to cheat on David also feels more like a plot point than an organic culmination of their relationship.
On the horror side, The Canal also equates quite nicely with the aforementioned NWoAH films: like the others, the film has a chilly, glacial pace and a tendency to rely on slow burn chills and “something’s happening behind you”-isms, although the occasional jump-cuts and loud musical cues are thoroughly off-putting and kind of obnoxious. When you have images as nice as the ones in this film, long, leisurely takes work much better than jump-cuts or quick-cuts, especially when trying to build atmosphere. It’s a minor quibble, to be sure, but one that definitely took me out a time or two.
While The Canal is full of really rich horror moments/imagery (one of the most unforgettable being the zombie-like figure that gives birth to an equally horrifying child…I’ve rarely seen anything quite that nasty and it’s a truly bracing moment), the main problem, once again, ends up being the familiarity of it all. In particular, Kavanagh and company make two explicit references to Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring (2002), including one where a creepy woman with long, dark hair crawls out of a television set. To be honest, it’s an oddly lazy moment in a film that’s generally much more interesting than that, although the image, itself, still packs a nice visceral wallop.
There’s also an inherent issue with this kind of “did he/didn’t he?” storyline, especially when the filmmakers seem to push one particular viewpoint over the other: while The Canal does take a few twists and turns and does a good job with the kind of open ending that usually causes me to roll my eyes, nothing that happened was really that surprising or shocking. I felt like I knew what was coming from the first reel and, for the most part, that’s exactly what I got. Again, this isn’t to cast undue derision on Kavanagh’s film as much as to state the relative limitations of this particular kind of tale.
Despite some minor issues and the aforementioned similarities to other films, The Canal is actually quite exceptional: some of the supernatural elements and imagery were quietly stunning and the relationship drama aspect feels utterly real (almost painfully so). One of the scenes, where David films by the canal as “something” approaches the camera, agonizingly slow step by agonizingly slow step, is really as good as NWoAH films get: there’s a genuine sense of building terror that hits you in the gut like a brick.
Looking through Kavanagh’s back-catalog, The Canal appears to be his most explicitly horror-related film, with the majority of his work seeming to fall into the “dark drama” category. This, of course, makes perfect sense: as mentioned earlier, the dissolution of David and Alice’s marriage has a verisimilitude that makes you want to look away, even though you’re too wrapped up in the events to do so. Here’s to hoping that Kavanagh continues to work in the horror field: there are enough good ideas and stylish moments here to indicate that he definitely has something to say. Hopefully, in the future, he won’t lean quite so heavily on what came before: I have a feeling that Kavanagh’s “roads not taken” might lead to some pretty damn interesting places.