The Canal (2014)
Dir. and written by Ivan Kavanagh
Starring Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hannah Hoekstra, Kelly Byrne, Steve Oram
This is a very tastefully made, low-key modern Irish ghost story which boldly approaches the hoary old haunted house trope with something very slightly new. Not new scares, or new images, or new characters or scenarios or anything. Not that new. They do nicely with the old staples, and that suits the movie just fine. More like a different structural perspective.
See, pretty much every ghost movie ever made is a series of escalations and denials. Nice couple of generically pretty white people move into a new house, one day the coffee mug isn’t where you thought you set it down. But that’s fine, you’re forgetful, you write it off. Then the kid says he hears someone talking from the ceiling. OK, you’re creeped out, but come on, kids say the darndest things. Then mom sees a mysterious figure walking down the hall late one night. But dad says, you must just have been sleepwalking, come on honey, you don’t really believe that. Everybody’s getting creeped out, but they’re all afraid to admit they believe in g...g...g...ggghosts! Surely there must be some other explanation! The conflict is about people gradually being shaken out of their comfortable world and forced to accept the reality of a strange and threatening new one. “Can this possibly be real?!” they moan. It’s a good setup, but it’s also a total waste of time because every single goddam person who rented PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 or whatever knows full well there’s gonna be a bunch of ghosts eventually, so what the fuck is the point of dragging it out and pretending there might be some other solution when we already know full well exactly how this is going to end?
|A picture speaks louder than a thousand words.|
THE CANAL tries a different route. Instead of hinting there might be something supernatural going on and gradually laying it on thicker, it starts from the end and works in the opposite direction. Instead of a bunch of innocuous things which might have an innocent explanation but gradually spiral to the point that the supernatural is undeniable, this one begins with some serious craziness, but then quickly offers a much more believable prosaic explanation. Most movie characters typically have to be pushed to become believers, even though we in the audience know damn well it’s ghosts. Here, our protagonist immediately suspects ghosts, but we the audience aren’t so sure, because the movie itself offers a far more logical explanation: this dude is just nuts.
See, the movie centers on quiet, nerdy David (Rupert Evans, HELLBOY), a turn-of-the-century film archivist with a much-too-hot-for-him wife (Hannah Hoekstra… uh…. MISTER TWISTER GOES CAMPING?) who he’s afraid may be having an affair with a ponytailed Eurotrash co-worker at her much-fancier-than-his job. While he worries about that, he’s at work day after day watching disturbing 1902 crime footage of a brutal murder which by happenstance occurred in his very house. When he finally catches his wife cheating, he suddenly has a strange supernatural experience and just before he passes out, he watches someone else attack her. When he awakens the next day with his wife missing, everyone is rightfully extremely suspicious of him, but he knows his wife’s disappearance is supernatural and sets out to prove it. The movie presents all this from his perspective and without judgement, but gee, whatever could the twist be? The thing is, it’s immediately obvious to everyone what the twist is. It doesn’t take a genius like Nobel Prize winning physicist Dr. Toshihide Maskawa to figure out what’s going on here, but since I’ve got him here anyway, let’s ask him.
Mr. Subtlety: Dr. Maskawa, thanks for taking the time to be with me here today.
Dr. Toshihide Maskawa: Thank you. Good to be here.
Mr. Subtlety: Dr. Maskawa, I understand you haven’t seen this film yet, but let me just give you a quick summary. You got this guy, awkward and uncomfortable, spending all his days watching old footage of murders from the 1900’s, and he catches his wife having an affair and mysteriously passes out just as he glimpses some other guy about to murder her. Now, he sees ghosts all the time and suspects they’re responsible for the mysterious disappearance of his beloved wife, but apparently no one else can see them and so he looks crazy and unstable to everyone else. What would you say is happening here?
Dr. Toshihide Maskawa: Well obviously he really killed his wife but suppressed the memory, and his subconscious guilt is making him crack up, as frequently happens in movies and is totally a real thing that happens in real life too I’d imagine.
Mr. Subtlety: Thank you doctor, it’s been a pleasure to have you.
|David tries not to rock out too hard to this elevator music|
So for a long time, you’re kinda groaning watching his shit, thinking jeez, are they really trying to pretend we don’t know where this is going? I mean, do they really think there’s anyone out there who is going to be surprised when they pull the rug out at the end? But gradually something intriguing starts to happen. The movie takes place from David’s perspective and never overtly challenges his experience of these events. But the longer it goes on, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that no one even remotely believes his story, and they have every reason for doubting him. We see the ghosts, and even we doubt him.
Still, somehow the longer you sit with that idea the more you start to wonder. I mean, the movie can’t possibly be building to such a laboriously telegraphed twist, right? If they were going for that, they wouldn’t make it so blunt. When the caustic Irish Paul Giamatti (Steve Oram, “Motorcycle policeman” from THE WORLD’S END) leading the investigation quips, “People always suspect the husband. You know why that is? Cuz It’s always the husband. Every time,” well the movie has laid its hand out so directly you gotta figure a twist is no longer an option. So it must be going somewhere else instead. The more obvious they make it that he’s nuts, the more you toy with the idea that maybe he might not be quite as nuts as he seems. Suddenly those ghosts we keep seeing start to look a hair more credible. I mean, there’s no denying it, this guy is definitely crazy. But maybe, just maybe, he’s crazy and there are also ghosts.
|Take this, worst toilet in Scotland.|
This makes for an interesting structure, but it also presents a somewhat troublesome problem. The horror parts here are exceedingly well done, full of skin-crawling images, superb sound work, and a queasy inscrutability. But because it’s so obvious that this guy is guilty, you’re primed to discount them more than you’re incline to be horrified by them. It’s sad, rather than scary; the story of this poor bastard who did something so terrible he can’t face it, and has instead built an elaborate fantasy world of self-persecution. But for awhile you have to wonder if it’s worth it to spend so much time on the spooky shenanigans --even good ones-- when you’ve also given me every reason to discount them. Why waste perfectly good scare scenes on a drama about mental illness? It ends up paying off, though. Because even if you’re never 100% convinced, the strength of the film’s visuals and the slow but steady way David makes his case for the hauntings being real gradually weaves some genuine unease in with the psychological drama. Something really bad is happening here, and even if we aren’t sure the ghosts are responsible for it, they still work to provide the dread-inducing tone the movie successfully builds to.
The film would work real well as a double feature with THE BABADOOK, since both are very well-made movies about a single parent slipping into insanity, with (possibly) the help of the supernatural. They both traffic in some ambiguity about what’s really going on, but they also both present tense, troubling human portraits so strong that no matter what you ultimately believe, they manage to be quite strongly affecting.* They both also feature unusually strong productions; THE CANAL, like BABADOOK, has a dingy, naturalistic look which is sometimes punctuated by moments of intense surrealism. CANAL isn’t as imaginative in its visuals as BABADOOK is, but it also sometimes goes even further into surrealism, from time to time positively evoking Argento in its intense, unsourced primary colored lighting and gruesome images of violence.
|Might be overdoing it a bit on the lipstick there, big guy|
I hesitate to say this, but there may also be something subtly meta going on here. It’s a film about a guy whose main job is watching and cataloguing old films, who not only comes to believe that these old films hold the key to explaining his recent misfortune, but who ultimately tries to use film to prove his own perspective on reality as well. Indeed, the film opens in a disorientingly unexpected meta way: David and his co-worker (Antonia Campbell-Hughes, “Stripper” from BREAKFAST ON PLUTO) stand, facing the camera in front of a blank movie screen, and explain that the film you’re about to see is about ghosts. Turns out they’re actually addressing a roomful of bored schoolchildren about the historical film clips they’re about to see, and the “ghosts” are the celluloid shadows of the now-long-deceased. It makes sense, but it’s hard not to suspect something thematic is happening on the sly. There’s almost a fetishization of film --and especially old film-- at work here, with a sharply edited repeated chorus of fleeting projector images that evokes REQUIEM FOR A DREAM in its syncopated rhythm of images and real-world percussion. I suspect there’s something going on here about the strange relationship between filmatic simulacrum and perceptive reality. David thinks if he can just capture what he sees on film, people will believe him. But of course, nothing on film is real, the image itself isn’t even real, it’s a series of still photos that our brains translate into moving, three-dimensional images. The only place the experience of film really exists in is our brains. And of course, the same is true for reality, so no wonder David is finding truth to be such a slippery thing.
|Alas, this looks disspiritingly similar to the theater I saw this movie in.|
Don’t go getting the idea that this is some sort of snarky postmodern meta-joke, though; mostly it’s a good old fashioned ghost story, and one which to all appearances takes its duties as such quite seriously. Even if its unusual narrative conflict doesn’t work quite as effortlessly as the classic ghost story build, it remains unique and effective filmmaking, and the kind of thing any horror fan should be leaping to support. Director Ivan Kavanagh isn't new to horror (his TIN CAN MAN from 2007 is now on my radar) but is better known for having directed a series of low-budget but well-received Irish indie dramas. Usually when a former horror director moves on to classy dramas you can pretty much count them out of the horror game, but he really gives it his all here, doing fabulous work with actors, sound, and image. If he can’t quite break free of some of the more shop-worn ghostly icons, well, he makes up for it with a strong narrative ferocity and a top-notch execution that finds plenty of life yet in these old ghosts.
*David has it a lot easier than Amelia in BABADOOK, though, because even while he’s falling apart, his kid is amazingly well behaved. Take a good hard look at this, Sam from BABADOOK. Get your shit together you little shit.
|Not quite as strong as Babadook, but a solid A-|