Studio: The Orchard
Director: Ivan Kavanagh
Writer: Ivan Kavanagh
Producer: Annemarie Naughton
Stars: Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hannah Hoekstra, Kelly Byrne, Steve Oram
In the wake of his wife’s unexplained disappearance, a film archivist uncovers a supernatural link between his house and a 100-year-old murder.
David Williams lives an average, yet idyllic life. A film archivist by trade, David has a gorgeous wife in Alice, and a happy young son named Billy. Five years after moving into a curious little house situated near a canal, David’s mind begins a trip down a Jack Torrance-like rabbit hole inspired by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity and the discovery of a horrific slaughter that once took place in his home.
When Alice goes missing under strange circumstances, David dives head first into the sinister history of his house’s past and the demonic presence that he believes is behind the horror. Digging deeper brings David closer to unraveling the century-old mystery haunting his family, but it also furthers the unraveling of his sanity.
With the possible exception of “puddle,” the film’s title and thus its central setting is perhaps the most benign water body for which a word exists. “The Canal” doesn’t exactly suggest swift movement in the way “waterfall” or “rapids” might, and it certainly doesn’t scream horror, either. Add in that the featured protagonist works as a film archivist, a profession one character confuses for a librarian, and the setup is upfront from its outset that “The Canal” is unlikely to be heavy on smash-mouth thrills.
But instead of looking for heat from the first match strike and a fiery flame, those who let the wick wither and light the room with subtle atmosphere will find their patience rewarded. Combining elements of “The Shining” and “The Ring” for a ghost story built on supernatural suspense, “The Canal” is the very definition of a slow-burn psychological thriller, and an excellent one at that.
While there are “boo!” moments of suddenly shifting shapes and sharp sounds, there aren’t many cheap jump scares. Once the slowly seeping creeps fully envelop both story and viewer, imagery and mood become the movie’s primary spellcasters.
“The Canal” doesn’t mount momentum through an expanding and contracting accordion of action and pauses. Rather, the tension is a persistent ratchet that seldom relaxes, yet is always tightening, albeit gradually. There are the occasional “reset” scenes like “breakfast the next morning” giving brief respite. Though for the most part, once “The Canal” starts taking on weight, it keeps adding straws until the camel’s legs buckle for a breakneck climax.
As effective as the cinematic experience is, “The Canal” is not without cracks in its foundation. Although the film works as a supernatural mystery, the script aims for a two-front assault on David by giving him a more earthly police investigation to contend with, too. The problem is, the angle of David’s possible involvement in his wife’s disappearance doesn’t have the same teeth as a crime drama that it does as a hallucinogenic haunting.
Upon secretly spying his wife Alice engaged in sexual intercourse with her lover Alex, David grasps a hammer and briefly contemplates brutal vengeance. A cooler head prevails however, and David makes his unnoticed exit without taking action. Into the canal he tosses the hammer before shuffling towards home in frustration.
Much later, some time after Alice’s body is discovered, Detective McNamara arrives at David’s house with questions following the police department’s discovery of the hammer in the canal. I have questions about this, as well.
The coroner clearly states, within the presence of both David and McNamara, that since Alice’s body showed no signs of assault or foul play, he could definitively conclude her death to be the result of an accidental drowning. Why then, would the police continue dredging the water when they don’t know what they are looking for, and technically don’t have a homicide to investigate?
And since Alice wasn’t bludgeoned, what is the hammer evidence of? It isn’t a murder weapon. At best, it proves that David was inside Alex’s house, since Alex reported the hammer as belonging to him. Except absent of monogrammed initials, in what world can anyone prove that an ordinary household hammer belonged to any unique person in particular?
It’s strange how McNamara immediately takes Alex’s word on everything. Alex’s “airtight” alibi for the night of Alice’s murder is that he was on the phone with a colleague who can corroborate hearing Alice leave before remaining on the call for another hour. Yeah, airtight. No chance at all of Alex’s colleague lying to protect him or anything, right?
“The Canal” doesn’t connect all of its plot dots with straight lines, and that includes how needlessly complex it gets with filling in the house’s background. Once the revelations play out in act three, the final picture is one of blurred logic and faulty arithmetic that doesn’t fully add up. Yet by the time you realize how unsatisfactory the explanation behind the mystery is, “The Canal” has already glamoured you with stylish eeriness that chills far deeper than conscious context ever could.
As an aside, if you are interested in seeing more of Hannah Hoekstra, who plays David’s wife Alex, look for “App” (review here), an inventive Dutch thriller with an added hook that encourages playing along on your cellphone. Steve Oram, who plays the bearded detective, also has much more to do with a costarring role in the darkly entertaining Ben Wheatley crime-comedy “Sightseers” (review here).
Review Score: 80