THE CANAL (NR, The Orchard, 2014) relies on a standard haunted-house horror story template, but writer-director Ivan Kavanagh customizes it in a way that makes it his own. While the well-seasoned horror fan can see the basics of the ending coming, there's nevertheless an enjoyably nerve-wracking ride to the finish and a somewhat disturbing coda in the denouement.
Background and Credits
Kavanagh teamed up with producer AnneMarie Naughton (Park Films) to make THE CANAL in 2013. The production received financing from both the Irish Film Board and the Film Agency for Wales. It stars Rupert Evans ("Hellboy," 2004), Antonia Campbell-Hughes ("3096 Days," 2013), Hannah Hoekstra ("App," 2013), and Steve Oram ("Sightseers," 2012). The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.
A film archivist, David (Evans), and his pregnant wife Alice (Hoekstra) buy and move into an old house located along a canal in Dublin. Five years later, David's work associate, Claire (Campbell-Hughes), asks him to view and archive a short film shot by the local police in 1902. When he watches it, he realizes that the crime documented in the footage took place at his house. It was the setting for a brutal murder. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with the details of the crime and begins to have paranormal experiences. Then he discovers that Alice is having an affair with one of her work clients, Alex (Carl Shaaban). Alice goes missing and is later found drowned in the canal. Police detective McNamara (Oram) suspects that David is behind Alice's death, but David believes that a demonic force is responsible. David becomes increasingly unhinged as he obsessively devotes himself to researching his house's sordid past while attempting to parent his young son Billy (Calum Heath) with the help of a nanny, Sophie (Kelly Byrne).
THE CANAL relies on a standard haunted-house horror storyline, but it does have enough original touches to make it different in a positive way. While the viewer can see the ending coming, it's an enjoyable ride to the finish.
Director Kavanagh used found footage, but (thankfully) not to carry the main storyline. In so doing, he made clever use of old filmmaking technology, both on-screen and in the found footage itself. Besides viewing the archival footage, David uses an antique movie camera to capture images of the supernatural beings that haunt him and his family. According to Indiewire, Kavanagh went to great lengths to make the fictional footage look convincingly authentic:
"My touchstone film, look-wise, was Lumiere's film "Feeding The Baby" made in 1895 and some of the other Lumiere films from that period. We tried shooting digitally and then adding various filters and grades, but there was something about the quality of the backgrounds in the original films that we just couldn't recreate. We then tried shooting on 16mm, Super 16mm and 8mm using various B&W stocks. Although a couple of these tests came close, none of them were exactly what I was looking for. Then, by pure chance, I got in contact with a private collector in the UK of early movie cameras. He flew to Dublin with an authentic Universal movie camera from 1915, which had apparently been shipped to Europe in 1916 from the United States and was thought to have filmed some action in the trenches during World War 1. It had then been put in storage for decades. We used the lowest speed B&W 35mm stock we could get our hands on and did our test. When we got the footage back from the lab, it blew us away. There it was, almost exactly, the look of the original Lumiere films."The locations captured for this film by both vintage and modern filmmaking gear are perfect backdrops for its action. The house is suitably creepy and boasts features that link it both physically and thematically to the equally eldritch canal that it faces. The canal has modern (although dilapidated) adornments alongside of it that increase rather than diminish its evil vibes.
David, the protagonist, becomes permeated by the demonic presence in this environment. Lead actor Evans' task was to develop David's increasingly paranoid mental state in a way that does not rule out either naturalistic or supernatural explanations for his condition. His portrayal of David does not only that, but also takes obsession to the point of extreme claustrophobia.
Although he succeeds in gaining the audience's empathy for David (in a big way for this married father), Evans also leaves room for the less attractive sides of his character's personality to shine through. His responses to paranormal phenomena (and frankly demonic -- or psychotic -- experiences) left me shaken enough to make me keep checking over my shoulder involuntarily for the rest of the evening. At the same time, I developed a palpable contempt for David's weaknesses.
Part of that contempt comes from another outstanding performance. Oram is spot-on as McNamara, the world-weary, jaded police detective sergeant who's assigned to David's case, first to investigate his wife's disappearance and then her death.
The cinematography, special effects, and film editing capitalize on the rising tension between David's increasing belief in the supernatural and McNamara's unwavering faith in the material world (not to mention the guilt of husbands whose wives mysteriously vanish, then turn up dead). These two world-views are often juxtaposed within the same scene. Is David haunted or insane? It's up to Claire (Campbell-Hughes) and Sophie (Byrne) to ride along with us on the journey, sharing our confusion until the nature of the boundary that David has crossed becomes clear.
Finally, just when the viewer thinks all the loose threads of the plot have been wrapped up, this film throws a curve after its climax. It comes in the form of the breaking of an unwritten, long-standing, horror-film rule regarding the fate of child characters. Although it works, it's a bit jarring.
Although writer-director, producer, cast, and crew clearly did their jobs well in THE CANAL, the underlying haunted-house story made it difficult to escape from the inevitable climax. We've heard this basic tale before. Nevertheless, Kavanagh personalized the story in ways that make this film more than worth a watch. Moreover, if you're a parent (especially a father), it will get under your skin.
TFK's Rating (on IMDb): 6 out of 10 stars
Disclosure: TFK viewed this film on VOD via Netflix and wrote this review based on personal selection. No review request was involved in this choice.