DIR/WRI: Ivan Kavanagh • PRO: AnneMarie Naughton • DOP: Piers McGrail • ED: Robin Hill • MUS: Ceiri Torjussen • DES: Stephanie Clerkin • CAST: Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hannah Hoekstra, Steve Oram
Following on from his bizarrely demented and macabre film Tin Can Man (2007), The Canal sees Irish writer, director and film festival favourite Ivan Kavanagh’s fifth feature entering the realm of horror once again. Less idiosyncratic and shadowing a more traditional narrative paradigm than Tin Can Man, The Canal is a self-conscious and unnerving supernatural horror and fully aware of its lineage within the genre, strategically appropriates from its cinematic predecessors and remains faithful to its cinematic form. Such self-awareness would therefore suggest a more accessible narrative to its audience and yet, it is as a result of this familiarity that Kavanagh is able to assemble a horror film that is instantly recognisable and formulaic, yet refreshingly contemporary, intelligent and immersive, which does not fail to startle, ruffle and hugely disconcert.
Placid film archivist David (Rupert Evans) and his pregnant wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) move into a charming, old house and five years on, along with their son, appear to live a reasonably contented life. When David is asked to view some archive police footage from a 1902 murder, he fearfully recognises his house as the murder scene where a man brutally murdered his wife and deposited her body in the local canal. His angst is further heightened when he suspects Alice of having an affair and when she fails to return home one night and her body is pulled from the canal, David becomes prime suspect. As he sets about finding the true killer, supernatural forces impede his efforts, catapulting David into a hypnotic mindscape of psychological paranoia.
In a sort of Paranormal Activity meets The Shining and The Babadook vein, The Canal is elevated from becoming another lethargic, disposable horror film by Kavanagh’s intellectual investment into his narrative, whereby the plot unfolds through the eyes of a personable man, whose steady mental decline not only mirrors but also exceeds the impetus of the most horrific and supernatural elements of the film. By consciously evoking repetitive signifiers of horror and arousing a feeling of nostalgia through pastiche, Kavanagh artfully lures and provokes his audience into a sense of recognition and predictability before assaulting them with the psychological annihilation of the film’s protagonist. Such narrative scaremongering fuses the horrific with the psychological, melds the past with the present and unveiled through a traditional narrative structure, blurs the boundaries between reverie and reality, creating a pulsating platform for the prolonged mental erosion of both protagonist and audience.
Mirroring The Canal’s cinematic heritage within the horror genre, David’s obsession with connecting Alice’s death with the deaths of the past, leads him to conclude that he is merely the next link in a long lineage of supernatural events in the house, which have returned to wreak further havoc and may not necessarily end with him. Kavanagh elicits motifs from supernatural horror Paranormal Activity, whereby David uses an old film camera to not only gather supernatural evidence, but also to demonstrate an appeal from the director to look to the past and reinvest in the genre as it increasingly appears to being devoured by cinema itself.
Rupert Evans’ performance as David is alarming in the shift from unassuming and tender husband and father to demonic neurotic and delusional obsessive. His performance is excruciatingly palpable and prickly; his decent into a nightmarish madness jolts and jerks far more perturbingly than any of the blood-spattered apparitions haunting the house. Hannah Hoekstra, as David’s seductive Dutch wife, extends beyond the archetypal horror beauty and mirroring David’s schizophrenic tendencies, invests great emotional malleability, oscillating between attentive wife and mother to deceiving adulteress with chilling ease. The two supporting characters skilfully bolster and sedate David and Alice’s overwhelmingly burdened performances. Antonia Campbell-Hughes as Claire sobers the overall intensity, her understated pragmatism the perfect foil to the psychotic madness. Steve Oram, as the quintessential Cockney copper, brings an equally law-abiding practicality to the narrative and compliments Claire’s skepticism as he attempts to remain outside the psychopathic minefield and remain inside the realm of rationality.
Piers McGrail’s moody cinematography jerkily vacillates between David’s four core spaces of calm; the house, canal, film archive rooms and his own mind, to a shattering of such oases of tranquillity, which explode into tense and suffocating pockets of bloody carnage and gore. The murky, putrid, and suffocating ambience, underpinned by a knowing spine-chilling score, cuts through the stillness of perceived normality to become an ominously fluorescent and hauntingly shadowy milieu, as the architects of David’s malaise haunt and taunt him into further preternatural torment, leaving both David and the audience with nowhere to go but remain locked inside this psychotic mindscape.
Although horror may be conventionally located as a low-cultural genre, The Canal is an intelligent revision of familiar horror and supernatural formulas, which, by littering the narrative with recognisable signifiers, instils a sense of familiarity to its audience before perversely steering the narrative into an unknown realm. By flirting with conventional haunted-house tropes which distort the perceptions of both genres, the film engages, intimidates and strikes terror on a whole new level, demonstrating that the horror and supernatural genres are far from dead.
16 (See IFCO for details)
The Canal is released 8th May 2015