The Canal Dir. Ivan Kavanagh

[Park Films; 2014]

Styles: horror, psychological thriller
Others: David Fincher, James Wan

“I got a letter this mornin, I say how do you reckon it read?”
“You know, it said, ‘Hurry, hurry, how come the gal you love is dead?’”
—Son House, “Death Letter Blues”

How did the blues feel the first time they were etched into vinyl? Revivalists like Tom Waits or Jack White have staked entire careers on the concept they walked onto the unclean sheets and blood splatters that Junior Kimbrough and Leadbelly previously shaped into lyrics. To me, the feeling that was trapped in those antiquated devices died in them too. There’s only rough voices singing about dead women and murder weapons.

Opening a film review with a blues comparison is mawkish, but in certain aspects, so is The Canal. The first scene of the film essentially parallels the previous paragraph; loving husband and film archivist David (Rupert Evans) panders to a restive audience of teenagers asking if they’d like “to see a ghost.” He then explains these are filmed murder scenes from over a century ago, and caught in the corroded celluloid are essentially people with no corporeal form: ghosts. This first metaphorical haymaker swing at us, the audience, encapsulates what makes The Canal weak and what makes it so strong: a heavy-handed story rife with intentionally jarring cuts and discontinuity, but packaged in an atmosphere so masterfully crafted, you forget you already knew how it ends.

Ivan Kavanagh’s fourth feature film concerns aforementioned archivist David and the disappearance and death of his unfaithful wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra). Claire is present or even just a thought only through the first act; Hoekstra, not necessarily through fault of her own, essentially feels like a character pulled out of a Winding-Refn affair. She’s a beautiful wife living a double life, giving furtive looks and furrowed brows and saying “I love you” a lot. Pretty much every character here feels cookie cutter; David’s colleague Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) is so obviously obsessed with David you cringe. The only other supporting character, Detective Mcnamara (Steve Oram), is so blasé about the homicide and skeptical of David’s innocence that he might as well have walked straight off a set of Law & Order: UK (that’s a real thing, look it up).

Detractive elements aside, this is easily the best horror film I’ve seen all year. Days before following his wife and confirming she’s sleeping with a guy who looks like he plays for Real Madrid or works as a Calvin Klein model, David comes across donated footage depicting the murder of an unfaithful wife and the murder-suicide of the husband and two children… all at his house! Convenient, aye? Well after retching out his insides in a public toilet probably modeled on the set from Trainspotting, David delusionally watches a murky figure standing by the dim stall, watching for a moment and then whispering in his ear. After crawling out through viscous nastiness, he watches the figure in an altercation with his wife at the bank of the canal, throwing her in, later to be found dead.

I don’t know what the mixture was between input from Kavanagh and the expertise of cinematographer Piers McGrail, but they managed to make one of the sleekest films in the genre to come along in awhile. Cut somewhere between the psychological assault of David Fincher and the supernatural unease of James Wan, Kavanagh and McGrail craft the perfect blend to create a world of paranoia and terror, reminiscent of Clouzot. David’s loose grip on reality is jostled through long shots of faded Irish industrial zones, constant manipulation of light and dark, and a sense of voyeurism palpable beyond the screen. In one recurring and obvious metaphor, David constantly sits staring at a hole in the wall, plumbing the innards of the house and consequently his mind for the truth. David aside, in a frequent close frame shot of the hole, the tension in the darkness and empty space created by McGrail was enough to make my chest knot up.

One element of the film not frequently discussed is the unmistakably Irish sensibility of the story; no one here makes it out alive. Though relatively light on gore, the scenes featuring blood and violence are brutal and borderline nauseating. Kavanagh is clearly aware of South Korean horror and uses the genre’s hyper-gore to his advantage in a few key moments. As a whole, those moments are used with restraint, creating a sinister world you feel like you read in an Irish ghost story book from those years you were obsessed with Poe (just me?).

In a genre renowned for lazy writing and beat tropes, The Canal separates itself as a meditated piece of filmmaking with a narrative more or less familiar since first hitting double digits. If someone could do for the blues what Kavanagh’s done for the ghost story, I might actually sit down and listen to Robert Johnson.

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