October Horrorshow: The Canal

The problem with watching so many horror films is that competent, little films like The Canal can come along and I’m not impressed or repulsed either way. That is, until I saw the ending of this one.

From Ireland, The Canal was written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh and stars Rupert Evans as David, a father trying to protect his son from a spectral menace. Or is David just crazy? This film hops back and forth from being a ghost story to being a mind-fuck at regular intervals. A viewer is never quite sure whether what David is experiencing is real or the result of a family trauma early on in the film.

David is, was, married. But his lovely wife, played by Hannah Hoekstra, has been stepping out. David suspects, and follows his wife and her lover back to their love nest. There, David witnesses the two rapt in passion, and thus starts the collapse of all that David holds dear. On his way home he becomes violently ill and ducks into the worst restroom in Dublin, along the banks of the titular canal. Here, David is first visited by the spirits. Or, is he imagining it? Real or not, we viewers see David’s wife killed, and David pass out in nausea and confusion. After this, the movie’s plot is set in motion.

The Canal is as much a tale of a person’s collapse as it is a horror film. David is forced to deal with his wife’s death in three excruciating fashions. One: he lost the love of his life and the mother of his child. Two: he has to suffer through the pain of knowing his wife was going to leave him, was pregnant, and the baby was probably her lover’s child. Three: the police suspect David of his wife’s murder. That is an awful conglomeration of high-stress emotions, and it makes viewers wonder whether or not David’s mind has snapped so completely that the figures and shadows that begin to haunt his daily life exist only in his head.

Kavanagh does a fine job of keeping the film’s denouement a mystery, but that might have more to do with a refusal to give a viewer any clues than with any profound depth to the plot. For as well as The Canal is made, were one to pay too close attention to it, one would find it is loaded with horror flick tropes. This doesn’t mean the film is bad, because it is crafted quite well, but it does mean most of what happens on screen will be familiar to those with more than a passing interest in horror flicks.

It’s not the lack of originality that harms The Canal. Rather, it’s a pace that’s on the wrong side of middling, combined with a very oppressive emotional atmosphere. The scares, when they do come, fail to break through the morass that David’s emotional state imposes on the viewer, meaning we wind up just waiting for the film to end.

And then it does. Boy, does it.

The ending features one of the most outrageous segments I’ve ever seen put to film, and also among the most abhorrent. It’s a moment that challenges a viewer’s sense of what belongs on film and what is a travesty to the art of horror and film in general. It made me wonder if this was all that was left, if this is what it took to still shock. And shock it did. The internet is a big place and spoilers are available there, so I won’t go into what awful thing Kavanagh and company subjected us to, but…goddamn. Job well done, sir. You made me pull back from the screen, something only a handful of horror films have ever done. Whether or not I felt the experience worthwhile is something I cannot figure out.

The Canal, despite this ending, is not a film that a viewer should seek out hoping for spectacle. It’s a contemplative work of dread that takes on a heretofore unexplored intensity in the final minutes. What would have been just an average, independent horror film instead becomes something that reviles and confuses, all because of about ten seconds of footage. It’s not necessarily a good thing that a film is defined by so few frames, but that’s just the way it is.