CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
Film archivist David (Rupert Evans) has been having a rough time lately, as he suspects that his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) has been cheating on him with Alex (Carl Shaaban), one of her work clients. This stress is compounded when David's work partner Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) gives him a reel of to-be-archived footage that shows that his house was the setting for a brutal murder in 1902. Becoming progressively more unsettled and unhinged, David begins to believe that a spectral presence is in his house and ends up following his wife to a nearby canal, where he discovers that she is indeed having an affair with Alex. When Alice goes missing shortly afterwards, David contacts the police, only to become the prime suspect in her disappearance. As the police grow more convinced that David has murdered his wife, he struggles to find proof of his growing suspicion that something otherworldly was instead responsible.
David and wife Alice move into an old house in this Irish/Welsh co-production. Five years later, now with a young son Billy, the husband and wife are having problems, her mind no longer on her partner, with the possibility that Alice is being unfaithful increasingly filling David’s mind, while young Billy says that there are monsters in the house, seemingly the usual night time worries of a young child.
David, for his job, has to review old film from the police archive in which he discovers that his house was the scene of a frenzied murder in 1902 in which a man killed his wife (the found footage is shown in a manner that felt far too reminiscent of Sinister and a plot point that borrows too much from The Shining as well some of the latter’s classic shots, which The Canal also borrows from in terms of imagery and tropes). At a party, David’s suspicions of his wife and her work client Alex grow, somewhat signposted in the acting, but is David right or becoming paranoid in his insecurity? He’s right: she is the adulterous wife. As David watches more of the old footage, the merging of past crime and haunted house murder scene of David as the killer merging into the present, suggesting that either the house is haunted, David is losing his mind, or both (with a soundtrack that also seems unnecessarily lifted at times from The Shining). Alice disappears, her body found in the canal. Did David kill her? David’s search for a possible ghostly killer begins, with David himself increasingly in the frame for the death of his wife and his state of mind becoming fragmented as he believes the real ghostly killer is still present.
Too often shots and scenes are reminders of other films (even a Trainspotting style dirty toilet to vomit into, and flickering lighting effects in the graffiti-covered toilet walled block that make you wonder which other film that came from: at times we might find ourselves in Jacob’s Ladder or The Woman in Black or The Innocents or any other number of recent US horror films in the Mama or Insidious mode, as though the director/writer was trying to fill the film with as many of his personal favourites as possible or just putting out a calling card for bigger jobs). The Canal is generally well acted (the direction of the actors is good) and well shot, but creepy sound design and style over substance is not an adequate replacement for original storytelling. And most UK/Irish/Welsh films need to avoid the policeman investigating the crime, as they simply seem out of place, overacting to compensate for being badly underwritten, and unlike many US police characters, barely interesting and too parochial.
There are good ideas in The Canal, but they always seem like somebody else’s. Rupert Evans as David is very good and watchable, but finds himself in a storyline we’ve seen before (the original version of The Vanishing (Spoorloos) is great for the husband falling apart, while the original Nightwatch (Nattevagten) is a class example of the actions of a man under suspicion), but writer/director Kavanagh goes for the easy options in storytelling and production, never hitting the possibilities of what could have been a stronger piece. Alice is underwritten, creating a character we have little or no sympathy for, and other characters seem simply there for plot purposes rather than to create any real depth to the story.
The Canal, when not falling into the trap of genre tropes, is nicely paced, taking its time, and director Kavanagh shows promise in his abilities and it will be interesting to see if he finds his own voice in his storytelling as he is worth another shot at a feature. The Canal isn’t a bad film, far from it, but it could have been better if it had avoided trying to be like something else purely to get funded and made. An interesting film, not without merit, but a little disappointing and in need of a less generic approach. Sinister and The Shining (which The Canal apes far too much) did it better. If you’re going to steal from other films, take the time to then make those ideas your own.
Still, overall, worth a watch, especially for the surprising end, and it gives recent US counterparts of similar storylines a decent enough run for their money.
David Paul Hellings
Images: IMDb & Cryticrock.com