The Canal (Ireland/UK, 2014)
I really wanted to like The Canal. It’s a beautifully shot film with a good cast and some wonderfully creepy moments. It is also, in many ways, a classic English ghost story (despite being a Welsh/Irish co-production), blending supernatural and psychological horror. You would be hard-pressed to find a combination of elements more guaranteed to please me. And yet I found myself bored for most of the running time. Yes, this is a well-made film, but it is far too familiar, and the few wrinkles it brings to the form have been done before and better.
David, a film archivist, uncovers a secret while cataloguing some old reels: the house in which he, his wife and their five-year-old son live has a dark history. A father killed his family and their nanny there over 100 years before. This revelation seems to affect David in a way deeper than simple shock, and almost immediately he starts having experiences that could be delusions or echoes of a past determined to repeat itself.
David’s situation worsens when he starts to suspect that his wife is having an affair. He follows her to a tryst with her lover and then staggers off to have a strange bout of hallucinations in a public lavatory. While this is happening, his wife disappears. When her body turns up in the canal, David finds himself under suspicion by the police (“People always suspect the husband. Do you know why? Because it’s always the husband, every fucking time.”) He grows increasingly convinced that his wife’s fate is tied to the earlier murders, going through the archives and shooting new footage to prove his theory. The more David digs, the more unreal and sinister his world becomes, with perceived threats to his young son and his nanny, but no one will believe him. Of course this ends badly for everyone.
The Canal is a film that relies almost entirely on ambiguity. The problem with its approach is that it conflates having an unreliable narrator with contradicting itself. All the way through we can see how David’s experiences could be the result of psychotic delusions or supernatural harrowing. The story finally picks a side, providing compelling evidence for one interpretation, before sweeping that aside for a coda that categorically proves the opposite. Maybe this is meant to show that there is no simple binary choice and both options are true, but it comes across as cheap and muddled. I still could have looked past this if the rest of the film had been more engaging.
Ambiguous hauntings are not a new thing, and many of the elements of The Canal would be at home in psychological ghost stories as old as Oliver Onions’ The Beckoning Fair One, although stronger influences may be seen in The Shining or, more recently, Sinister. The question of whether David is a murderer or the victim of an unbreakable cycle of supernatural evil is put on the table early in the film, and his search for truth provides the meat of the story. While there is some fear to be found here, most of it just feels like snippets taken from other, more original films, and by the time we reached the end I could barely make myself care about the fate of David or those around him.
In every other respect, however, The Canal is a superior horror film. It is well-paced and beautifully shot, boasting a terrific cast who bring the story to life as best they can. Many of the individual scenes are great slices of horror, and there is some unexpectedly nasty and vile imagery towards the end. The result is less than the sum of its parts, however, which just makes The Canal all the more frustrating. It feels like a missed opportunity and a waste of talent and resources.
Familiarity is not a good thing for a horror film. As the oft-quoted opening from Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature tells us, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” While the horrors of The Canal are mysterious to its protagonist and shrouded from the audience in ambiguity, they feel far from unknown to any lover of ghost stories. With a bit more originality, The Canal could not only have been frightening but one of the more memorable ghost stories of recent years. Instead, I can only see it as a lovely, frustrating failure.
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