Written and Directed by: Ivan Kavanagh
Starring: Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, and Hannah Hoekstra
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Fear will pull you under.
Arriving as the latest effort in a genre that prides itself on shocking twists and turns, The Canal boldly reveals its hand and proceeds to fuck you right up anyway. It begins with protagonist David (Rupert Evans) hushing an audience of schoolchildren by promising them ghosts. Much to their chagrin, heís referring to a collection of vintage film reels containing footage of subjects that have long sense passed. That he sometimes appears to be directly addressing the camera doesnít seem coincidental since this is where The Canal lays bare its themes: what we are about to witness will also be a film marked by death and the specter of a past that lives on both in film and in historyís tendency to repeat itself.
You sense that most everyone in it will also soon be dead, so thick is the foreboding doom that accompanies an ominous five year jump in time. When we first meet David and his wife (Hannah Hoekstra), itís the filmís lone glimpse of happiness: sheís pregnant with their first child, and theyíve just bought a home. The abrupt shift casts a pall: suddenly, the life has been drained from their marriage, and her long nights at the office arouse Davidís suspicion. His obsession leads him to tail her and a lover one night to confirm those suspicions, only to have her turn up missing the next day. After her body is fished out of a nearby canal days later, he protests his innocence and suspects her death is related to the gruesome, murderous history of his house.
What follows is a familiar but rather forthcoming exercise in toeing the line between a haunted house film and a psychological thriller. Where lesser films might attempt to lead viewers down one obvious path before pulling the rug from beneath them, The Canal respects its audience enough to introduce ambiguity, and itís hardly subtle about it. Even when a coroner exonerates David by ruling his wifeís death an accident, director Ivan Kavanagh keeps one eye trained on him and casts doubt on his innocence with suspicious editing choices, such as disruptive jump cuts and purposeful omissions in the narrative. A cop assigned to the case frankly states what the audience is thinking: of course David actually murdered his wife because ďitís always the husband.Ē If David is responsible, it certainly wouldnít be a shock.
And if heís the victim of a century-old supernatural conspiracy, itís a ghastly one indeed. While The Canal relies on typical genre mannerismsósparse lighting, menacing shadows, slow, ominous dolly shotsóitís not reluctant to also indulge in grisliness. Davidís introduction to the events in his house comes in the form of old police reports that feel like vintage snuff reels, and the dissonance between their turn-of-the-century aesthetic and grotesque imagery becomes jarring nightmare fuel. When he isn't imagining savage fits of violence, he's being haunted by a malevolent, Slender Man style specter that may or may not live within an old hand-cranked camera. Ironically, Davidís job as a film archivist has preserved these ghosts and perhaps unleashed their exploits on a new generation of victims.
Irony continues to trickle down as David (again, perhaps) loses his grip on sanity, his dogged quest to keep his family intact having been twisted into a hellish tragedy. The Canal is a kin to the likes of The Babadook in its rendering of a parental nightmare in which the parent might be the monster hiding in the closet. David becomes so gripped with preserving the family he has left (his son and his nanny, who becomes a surrogate mother figure) that he never reckons with his own demons. Evans is sympathetic in his grief and paranoia but not without hints of shiftiness in a role that demands some level of balance to retain the filmís ambiguity: viewers need to simultaneously believe in Davidís innocence and remain convinced of his capacity for foul play.
Like The Babadook, The Canal also concerns viewers with how literal its demons are and eventually settles on a similar answer. It does stop short of taking the same steps to a surprising, thoughtful resolution and instead opts for a parade of overt shocks. The only surprise here is just how far it goes: from its opening frame, it feels a death march towards inevitable doom, and it truly plunges in for its climax. Despite echoing several familiar beats (and even iconic scenes), Kavanagh unleashes a torrent of unnerving, macabre images that arenít easily shaken.
With unending dread waiting around every corner all the way to the final credits, The Canal is a mean, relentless film with little use for deception: itís less worried with the rug-pulling and more concerned with the resulting blunt force trauma that lands right in your gut. Its opening scene promises ghosts, after all, and the rest of it is eager give them up in the most horrifying fashion imaginable. The titleís suggestion of birth (which is accented by some of the filmís vaginal imagery) almost becomes ironic: ultimately, it suggests that death is a gruesome pathway to another ghastly life, and its titular waterway becomes a River Styx to an underworld that won't be contained by urban legends or film.
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