October 10, 2014
Rupert Evans as - David
Hannah Hoekstra as - Alice
Calum Heath as - Billy
Steve Oram as - McNamara
Ivan Kavanaugh is a director from the Republic of Ireland and while many might not be familiar with his work, hopefully that all changes when people see The Canal. Kavanaugh has made several short films and full length features and has had the chance to travel to many film festivals across the world with his work. That experience is backed up by a supreme confidence which he shows so impressively in his latest low budget feature The Canal.
David (Rupert Evans – Hellboy) is a film archivist who along with his lovely young wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra – App) are expecting their first child. David is a somewhat nervous and shy man but he looks on happily as his wife tours the house near a canal which is to become their new home. Five years pass and things have changed. It soon becomes apparent that some distance has grown between the two and while David has been able to fill that gap somewhat with their son Billy, Alice might have started looking elsewhere. At work David is given some old film from a police archive to watch and what he discovers is chilling. The film is from 1902 and shows footage documenting a brutal murder that took place in their home. David starts to suspect that something is going on between Alice and one of her clients and so he decides to follow her. Discovering them together he staggers away, ducking into a disgusting public bathroom along the canal and vomiting. Another man appears in the stall with him, telling him something we can’t understand before David hears screaming and sees a figure attacking a woman on the edge of the canal. David passes out and finds himself awake in the bathroom the following morning with no sign of his wife. Things start to spiral further out of control as David has terrifying nightmares, becomes the prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance, and a dark presence starts to fall around him as his mind starts to unravel.
Things get worse and worse for David, revelations hit this already broken man over and over and he is plagued by visions that may or may not be real. We see everything from his point of view and he becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator for his own story. The lines between reality, the supernatural and his own crumbling psyche blur. David, and in turn the viewer, is increasingly alienated from the outside world. The atmosphere is thick and unsettling, Ivan Kavanagh said he actually spent more time on the sound design than he did shooting and his attention to detail shines through. Little moments of quiet filled with sound, the time taken to add distant figures in the far background and other such touches; this goes beyond the level of normal genre filmmaking and into the realm of a true auteur. This sense of quiet dread is then punctuated with sudden jolts of sound, of bizarre and disturbing images and at times sudden moments of graphic violence and horror. From the brief opening title card The Canal is determined to keep the viewer off-balance and never sure where the film is going next and really cements the “nightmare” concept of the film. It really conjures a surprisingly colorful dreamlike spirit not unlike classic Italian “Giallo” horror from the likes of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Despite its low budget and limited locations used for the shoot it is this incredible level of detail and work which add incredible production value and is a great part of why this The Canal so excels.
The rest of the reason that the film works as well as it does is the uniformly terrific cast. Bolstered further by being allowed to improvise a lot with the dialog meant the actors were comfortable enough to portray characters that behave realistically. Rupert Evans shines as David, a timid man pushed far beyond his breaking point. A lot is asked of him emotionally as his character whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic and unstable and it is a great credit that he keeps the character grounded and never becomes camp or overacts. The whole story requires the viewer to stay with David despite what starts to develop later in the film and to still feel some sympathy for him, Evans pulls this off in one of the best horror performances of the year. Another very important aspect of the story is the relationship between father and son and young actor Calum Heath is quite amazing as five-year-old Billy. Rupert Evans and Antonia Campbell-Hughes spent days with Calum establishing trust and to set him at ease with these people pretending to be his parents. This pays dividends as Calum is incredibly natural and convincing as Billy and avoids the classic issue of bad child actors. Also of great note are Antonia Campbell-Hughes as David’s boss Claire and Kelly Byrne as Sophie the babysitter. They do expert jobs reacting to his diminishing mental state in ways that seem plausible, avoiding the pitfall of making stupid or unrealistic decisions that take the viewers out of the story. Finally, Steve Oram as Detective McNamara (Sightseers, Kill List) is a menacing presence that from the beginning suspects David and is unwavering in his barely contained hostility for the man he believes has murdered his wife.
The Canal takes a very basic murder mystery story and makes something truly compelling and terrifying out of it. The revelation of the murder ends up being very secondary to the journey; one that chills and scares in equal measure. From the menacing sense of impending doom and gloom which descends upon the movie to the sudden terrifying and disturbing jolts it is truly an experience where you are forever guessing where you will be taken next. The ending is also a truly amazing piece of horror filmmaking that could prove very divisive but is one final reminder that this is a horror film with no interest in holding the viewers’ hands through its many horrors. One of the best horror films of 2014 and an absolute must see.