There is much to fear in The Canal. The chilling sense of dread permeating the whole film, the question of whether David’s house is haunted or just his unwinding mind. The biggest fear, though, is that The Canal has, in my eyes, suffered the same fate that befell 20,000 Days on Earth earlier this year. Boasting one of the most impressive trailers in memory, the expectations it provided could thus never be met.
This of course is less a fault of the film than of what the trailer chose to reveal and my own preconceived notions. As a result, my somewhat underwhelmed opinion may sour the tone of this review, but doesn’t change the fact The Canal is a solidly made chiller – here a relevant and important distinction from thriller – and one of the better genre films of the year.
David, his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) and son Billy all reside in a large house close to the titular body of water, the sort of house which looks delightfully middle class in the day, and then imposing, disconcerting and nightmare-worthy at night. David learns Alice has been having an affair and, after following and spying on her one night, momentarily considers going all Oldboy on them both with a hammer. The next day, his wife is missing.
While dismissing police accusations of his culpability in her disappearance, David, a film archivist, becomes convinced that the wife-killer who lived in his house approximately a century prior (and whom he has witnessed in police films) is responsible. Not least because while in a delirious state he witnesses the Jack Skellington-statured man actually push her into the canal.
The question normally in a film of this nature would be whether or not David was responsible for disappearing his wife, and thus whether he is subsequently hallucinating the hauntings which are occurring in his house with increasing frequency. The Canal is less concerned with answering questions than the nightmare journey (director Ivan Kavanagh expressed on multiple occasions that he was aiming to convey a nightmare, and some of the imagery towards the end certainly reinforces that).
The performances are uniformly excellent, and the film is lucky enough to have a child actor who’s not irksome and infuriating – an attribute most films fail at. Commendably, Kavanagh never exploits Billy for “I see dead people”-esque scares, simply and effectively using him to give David an anchor and purpose, while also being David’s primary motivation for solving the central mystery.
My only criticism is that the film perhaps just isn’t haunting enough. The scares and creepy elements that were present were effective – when I first saw them in the trailer. Frankly, prior to the sewer chase climax (which features one surprising, uncomfortable and affecting moment particularly reminiscent of Cronenberg), there was little that hadn’t be revealed previously in the promotional material and therefore The Canal was relying on atmosphere and tone to carry it through it’s revelations. Luckily it does this well, but that doesn’t remove the fact in places it feels like half a film.
The Canal is well worth the time, with chilling, sustained dread and moments of self-reflexivity in regards to the horror genre (the characters are all intentionally written as archetypal, in order that they can be played with with awareness, and there is an unsubtle Ringu homage) and cinema in general (the opening features David introducing early cinema to children as full of ghosts, much to their chagrin, and much is made of classic film making and actualities). Kavanagh aimed for a film that would linger in memory for weeks after the credits rolled, and while weeks may be a stretch, it’ll certainly revisit the mind for a few days after.