THE CANAL (***)
Running time: 93 minutes
Director: Ivan Kavanagh
Cast- Rupert Evans, Hannah Hoestra, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Steve Oram
(Belfast Film Festival screening, Queen’s Film Theatre, 17/04/2015)
‘Will you watch this film with me? I’m scared to watch it alone’ begs the grieving and quite possibly mad father at the centre of Irish film-maker Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal, an over-familiar but still effective horror set in a Dublin townhouse. We open on the yuppie dream, with David (Rupert Evans) and his beautiful, pregnant wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) joyfully agreeing on a new family home, a buzzing middle-class aspiration that goes sour quickly.
Five years later they have a young boy, and a marriage of distance and distrust. David suspects she’s having an affair with her work friend, his jealousy and red-hot resentment spiking just as he comes across a strange police film for his film archivist job, a grainy monochrome report form the early 1900s about a husband’s grisly murder of his wife in David’s house.
Here film watching is a kind of incantation, awakening the home’s dormant spirits that skulk just out of sight, behind walls and in corner shadows. Something very bad happens to the wife, and David descends into a kind of fever dream of grief and paranoia, a slightly baggy narrative rendered stylishly by Pier’s McGrail’s photography and the sharp, jagged sound design.
The influences are plain to see: the hostile real estate of Amityville, the dank waters of J-Horror, the matted hair shadow girl of Ringu. The Babadook also comes to mind. The Canal isn’t operating at the same level of Jennifer Kent’s frightener – it doesn’t have the same clarity of vision – but it makes similar hay with a suffocating domestic atmosphere.
After Alice’s disappearance, David is looked at with suspicion and concern, as he pulls his son closer and rambles to colleagues about child murders from a century ago. Evans does a convincing job with his dead-eyed shell-shock, distracted and obsessed with rings around his eyes. As David investigates the strange goings-on, clipping up articles about gruesome deaths on his bedroom wall, the film slips into some inertia, and it’s clear there hasn’t been that much thought on the ideas behind the haunting (séances, sacrifices, that sort of thing).
There are periods of solid, sustained tension which will be pretty unbearable for particularly thin-skinned audience members, producing a visceral, hair-raising dread unmatched by most Hollywood horror. The last twenty minutes or so are both silly and audacious, as things come a head.
The nice ambiguity about where the demonic ends and the psychological begins is cheapened by flashbacks and monster reveals that give a little too much away, and there’s a rush into all-out grossness which some horror fans will appreciate more than others. Veterans of the genre won’t find much new here, but Kavanagh and his team know how to put viewers through the ringer.