“THE CANAL” (Tribeca Movie Review)
THE CANAL begins. David addresses the camera directly (us). Within the film however, he’s speaking to an audience of children. As a cinema archivist, David is attempting to convey the importance of what these schoolchildren are about to witness. Introducing footage from the early 1900s, he tells them they’ll see ghosts, that everyone onscreen is now dead. To the viewer, it’s foreshadowing yes, but something more. Writer-director Ivan Kavanagh is engaging the dread in inevitability, as well as—through David’s profession and a host of unmistakable horror references to come—why we tell domestic horror stories: they keep occurring.
Similarly, there’s little mystique in THE CANAL’s title. It’s named for the canal which runs alongside the street on which David, his wife Alice and their young child live. It’s also the place where Alice’s body will be uncovered soon after David confirms suspicion of her infidelity; an anxiety exacerbated by a newsreel that tells the tale of a turn of the century family murder that took place in the exact house which David resides. Viewing Ivan Kavanagh’s unsettling Irish horror film as one that hinges on the mystery of whether David is physically responsible for his wife’s death betrays its intent. Again, it’s the true fright of inevitability at play. SIGHTSEERS’ Steve Oram, as an encroaching policeman, says, “Do you know why people always suspect the husband? Because it’s always the husband.” Whether a long dead maniac who murdered his own family is responsible for influencing David’s actions, or whether David’s simply lost it on his own is moot.
Instead, THE CANAL plays out as descent. David, convinced a malevolent spirit choked the life out of Alice whilst he blacked out in a bathroom, grows frenzied and paranoid as THE CANAL almost inverts the “psychotic woman” film, especially when our lead deals with questions of competence in raising young son Billy. Rupert Evans, as the father, is fantastic in the role; his lack of assurance helping Kavanagh at first sell an atmosphere of inadequacy, that slowly leads to haunting derangement and eventually, a deluge of ghastly visuals.
Also aiding are the ghosts of cinema past and present, as Kavanagh uses expressionist influence and slow push-ins, and more contemporarily, the aesthetics of James Wan (lots of harsh, garish color; shadowplay), Ben Wheatley (jarring cuts, domestic fear) and Hideo Nakata (oh, you’ll see) to inform that sense of cycles revolving, repeating. Luckily, Kavanagh isn’t simply cribbing. It all hovers like a black cloud, as these stories are timeless. Marriage and parenting will forever yield fear and that fear will sometimes yield unnatural, truly terrible action. And so horror stories will forever be told about such.
What makes THE CANAL unique, outside of the unsettling atmosphere that Kavanagh cultivates is what’s becoming apparent as a stylistic signature from editor Robin Hill. An actor seen in the UK’s currently running THE BORDERLANDS, Hill also edited Wheatley’s DOWN TERRACE, KILL LIST (seemingly recalled here in The Canal’s tunnels) and SIGHTSEERS. The aforementioned cuts that expertly mimic flashes of unpleasant memory and more stellar work mark Hill as one to watch, perhaps not unlike how the French boom of the late 2000s and Baxter made the notion of a recognizable editing style apparent to many horror fans.
Inevitably ending on a truly grim note (it’s best to keep the opening dialogue in mind), THE CANAL sits on the viewer’ shoulders as a legacy of domestic horror film sits on its own; an unnerving, dread-fueled piece of work.
THE CANAL plays the Midnight Section of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, with screenings on Saturday, April 19 and Wednesday, April 23. For more, see here.