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Non-Review Review: The Canal

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Ghosts are all around us.

As the opening scene of The Canal quite clearly states, the deceased endure long after their passing. Whether as images captured on camera or stories repeated in hushed tones, the dead haunt us. What are ghosts but the voices of history reaching out to the individual like some nightmare lodged deep in the collective unconscious? The “stone tape” theory of paranormal activity suggests that horrific events leave their mark, a blood stain that won’t wash out. What if that stain is psychological? What if ghosts are nothing but tales that echo in the darkness?

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It is not an entirely original concept, to be fair. The idea of ghosts that exist as stories (or as media) is quite an old idea. In fact, one particular jump scare in The Canal owes quite a specific debt to Ringu, the iconic Japanese horror story about a ghost trapped inside a haunted video cassette. That scene is not the only parallel; The Canal centres itself upon a man working at the National Archives who finds himself processing old footage. No sooner has he discovered the gory details of a brutal murder in his home than it seems that those same ghosts come to life.

The Canal hits a few speed bumps in its final act, but – for most of its runtime – the film is a thoroughly compelling modern day ghost story. Writer and director Ivan Kavanagh wears his cinematic homages on his sleeve, drawing quite openly from directors like Roeg or Kubrick. The Canal is an unsettling and fascinating Irish horror film.

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The biggest problem with The Canal is the speed at which the film has to move to cover all the necessary ground in the allotted runtime. The first act feels a little rushed. David and Alice are a couple who are very much in love, who buy an old house on the banks of the canal; however, over the years, it seems like cracks begin to develop in their marriage. Just as David discovers details of grisly murders in their idyllic family home, he becomes more and more suspicious about Alice’s life outside the home.

The Canal has to get to one significant plot point in order to spur the rest of the plot forward, but that plot point feels so significant that all the energy spent trying to reach it feels fevered. It is a plot point that could arguably serve as an entire film in and of itself. Instead, The Canal reaches that point quite quickly and has cleared way the immediate aftermath by the time that the audience is a third of the way through the film. It is certainly efficient, but perhaps a little too efficient. It feels like a major part of David’s story is glossed over rather briskly.

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The same thing happens towards the climax of the film, as the movie tries to tidy everything up relatively neatly. There are a number of flashbacks that exist to redefine important moments of the film, to reveal the truth of previously ambiguous events. However, by the time the movie reaches this point, there is no ambiguity left to remove. It is quite clear what has been happening, and flashing back serves to pull the audience out of a climax that is already a little too busy and hectic for its own good.

Indeed, The Canal seems to come almost undone as it approaches the final credits, casting aside a lot of what had been more interestingly implied by the rest of the film. There is a sense that The Canal removes a lot of its own mystery as it builds towards a fairly obvious ending. There is even an epilogue grafted rather clumsily on the film, playing into the classic horror tendency to try for that one last scare. The final ten minutes of The Canal do not work as well as they might, as homage seems to give way to cliché.

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However, for most of its runtime, The Canal is a fascinatingly unsettling ghost story. Kavanagh’s approach is very traditional and relatively restrained. There are quick flashes of gore and brutality, but most of his scares are of the traditional “object hidden in shadow” school of horror. There are lots of half-seen silhouettes lurking at the edge of the frame, lots of spectres that can be barely glimpsed far too close to our heroes for comfort. Kavanagh gets the most out of the orchestra’s string section.

There is something endearingly traditional about all this. For all that David spends his time working at the National Archives, it seems that Kavanagh has spent his own time pouring over classic horror films. David and his co-worker fondly discuss movies like Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People. The spectres haunting David are decidedly Victorian (well, technically Edwardian) in appearance, making the film feel very much like an old-school ghost story. It even opens with David asking a room full of children if they’d like to see some ghosts.

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Appropriately enough, The Canal is fascinated with the idea of ghosts that exist as fragments of narrative. Most obviously, David seems to conjure spectres into being by the very act of working the crank on an old-school camera – reviving the dead simply by recording. However, there are lots of other examples scattered through The Canal. At one point, David claims to hear whispering through the walls; whispering that is coming from behind the billboard where he has pinned all of the news reports about strange occurrences in and around the house.

It seems as if the very act of recording and reviewing history creates ghosts; as if dredging up history is akin to dredging up the canal. David’s act of paranormal communion are as darkly occult as any sinister ritual that might have been conducted within these walls. The Canal is a story about storytelling, a very clever and self-aware piece of horror fiction about how people tend to conjure up their own ghosts. Kavanagh has great fun playing with the idea, keeping a healthy ambiguity running through the film.

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The Canal also benefits from a strong cast. Rupert Evans is suitably on-edge as David, a man who seems unsure about how much he can trust his perception of events. Antonia Campbell-Hughes does good work as Claire, David’s boss at the National Archives. In particular, Steve Oram has a memorable turn as McNamara, a Garda who finds himself increasingly suspicious of David. The cast commit themselves to the horror leanings of the plot, embracing the heightened mood of the piece.

The Canal is a superb and memorable piece of Irish horror.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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