The Canal. 2014. Directed and Written by Ivan Kavanagh. Starring Rupert Evans, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Hannah Hoekstra, Kelly Byrne, Steve Oram, and Calum Heath.
Unrated. 92 minutes.
★★★The few times I’ve seen Rupert Evans he has impressed me, from Hellboy to the BBC’s mini-series adaptation of the incredible novel North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and I’m actually a huge fan of the more recent The Incident – an 80s horror throwback that takes place in an asylum where the power goes out, leaving the employees and guards at the mercy of the inmates.
So naturally, once The Canal hit my radar I wanted to get a look. The trailer looked creepy, and I’m always a sucker for anything haunted house-ish.
I honestly loved most of the movie. There were some great scenes filled with emotion, horror, and genuine suspense and tension in spades.
However, in the final 20-25 minutes things completely fell apart. The movie’s own logic twisted and caved in on itself, actually leaving me in awe once the climactic events transpired. I sat there, wondering exactly – where and when, and how, did it all go wrong?
The Canal tells the story of film archivist David (Rupert Evans) who seems to have it all – he and his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) are about to have a child, they’re also moving into a beautiful old house. Cut to five years later: things are tense. David seems to be slightly suspicious of Alice, who gets a text late at night, and then seems to be a little closer than necessary with a client from work, Alex (Carl Shaaban). Furthermore, David’s partner at work Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) has him review archived police footage from the early 20th-century – turns out, the house in which he and his wife live was the scene of a vicious murder in 1902: a man killed his whole family, right in their bedroom.
One evening when Alice tells her husband she needs to work late, David decides to follow her. He sees Alice leave her office with none other than Alex. David tails the two of them, first down along the canal a little ways from their house, then right to Alex’s house. David heads inside, quietly, where he witnesses a scene which breaks his heart: Alice and Alex have animalistic, vigorous sex on a mattress laid on the floor. The scorned husband watches in agony – he sees a hammer on the floor, he grabs it, but then we cut to him walking down along the canal. The hammer does not look bloody, but he tosses it into the water. David gets sick and stops into the toilet by the canal, where he sees someone watching from outside a stall. Then he blacks out.
David wakes up, and returning home he discovers his wife is not there. The next day, still, Alice does not show up. Eventually, the police drag the canal and find Alice’s body, dead and bloated. Of course the suspicion is immediately on David, who does not tell the police what he saw his wife doing with her client from work. With nothing on David, the police leave him be except for a cop named McNamara (Steve Oram) who seems to suspect there is foul play going on, even if Alice’s death was ruled by the medical examiner as having been accidental.
Strange supernatural things begin to happen to David – he hears things, sees them. Soon, everyone around him is worried, but David insists he is not crazy. Down the rabbit hole they all go.
We’ll start with the things I loved about The Canal.
First, the air of suspense and dread worked well. Many horrors suffer from a lack of real tension, but this film really had that. Tension helps with the truly scary moments, which come off better than they would have had there not been such a creepy atmosphere. Ivan Kavanagh did some great stuff here as director; I’ve never seen anything else by him, though, I added Tin Can Man to my watchlist ages ago and intend to track it down someday, especially after seeing Kavanagh has some skill.
I liked the inclusion of the archival footage. The editing in this movie was spectacular. Some of the quick flashes later on in The Canal reminded me of William Friedkin’s flashes of Pazuzu in The Exorcist. Right at the beginning, even, there are some excellent quick cuts to the original murder in the house during 1902: all I can say is there is one amazing practical effect for the stabbing, if it were shown outright it wouldn’t be as effective but the fast editing makes it chilling.
Rupert Evans is most likely the best part of The Canal, as his performance roots all the horror and tension in the right place – regardless of how the ending turned out.
Right from the start of the film I liked how natural Evans seems. The chemistry between him and Hannah Hoekstra as husband and wife works, which in turn helps the drama between the two feel that much more painful.
To see David (Evans) have to go through the torture of literally watching his wife cheat on him is devastating. That scene where David sees the both of them having sex is heart wrenching; you feel both the disappointment and hurt, as well as the anger and the pain bubbling just below the surface, and you don’t know what he’ll do with it all. Evans pulls out a fabulous performance, which quite frankly, for me, saves this film from a lower rating.
Another aspect of the film I thought was great is the score. Composer Ceiri Torjussen drives home a lot of the tension that Kavanagh culls from the creepy scenes, and it all helps things chug along grimly; could not get enough. Torjussen has done lots of scoring before, but this is the first time I’ve experienced his work. There were scenes in which the score pulsed, cutting right to the core, and it’s almost one of those iconic horror scores that drives the action, the terror and the suspense – like Bernard Herrmann’s classically horrifying work on Psycho – so I can easily say the score itself is one of the best parts of The Canal overall. It does so much justice to the direction of Kavanagh and the creepy tone of the film.
Now, we come to the conclusion of the film. SPOILERS AHEAD – TURN BACK OR FOREVER SHALL THE HORRORS AND BLUNDERS OF THIS FILM BE RUINED!
My problem with The Canal is the fact that it builds up all sorts of tension, it executes suspense so well and the horror is there, a bit of blood and all – then the ending completely blows all that away.
David ends up being the culprit. Which would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact it could’ve been more.
I wanted him to take the fall for the supernatural elements doing the dirty deeds. It would have worked as a stellar haunted house piece if the spirits, or whatever you want to call them, inside the house were the ones killing people; first Alice, then Claire.
And there’s a great bit right before the finale kicks in – David plays the film reel he shot near the canal for Claire, the one where he thought he’d seen a dead woman walking towards him. When he does, conveniently over the hole in the wall (one David chipped out earlier in the film), the dead woman crawls out of the hole, flops to the floor; she walks to Claire, grabs on and pulls her back into the wall. David is horrified, naturally. He runs to get his son. The police are also outside, keeping an eye on David for McNamara, and hear Claire screaming. David runs from them, down the sewers and towards the canal. On the way, he comes to realize he is indeed the killer.
David flashes back to an alternate scene of him and Claire watching the reel – now, the woman does not appear. We see David get violent with Claire, asking if she sees, berating her. Then David is seen choking her, along with flashes of old pictures/archival footage of cult-like activity from the past going on in the house. Afterwards, he flashes back to when Alice died, realizing similarly that he’d killed her, too.
What pisses me off is how this was obvious, almost right from the beginning. I kept hoping for a different twist – mostly, I wanted the supernatural to be killing people, for real. Instead, this ended up as a bad knock off of The Amityville Horror, while the entirety of the film beforehand set up something far greater, something much scarier. It’s just another one of those movies where the husband, or a character similar, has done the deed and spends the whole film in an amnesia-like state until the reveal.
But worst of all (again, MORE SPOILERS)… in the end, David jumps into the canal, trying to evade capture by the police. He has his son in his arms. Then, from the depths, his wife reaches out and grabs onto David’s ankle. He lets his son float upward, but dead Alice grips him tight, and David drowns. What makes me mad about this is the fact that Kavanagh tries to make it look like the ghosts are killing people – then he switches back to the alternate scene of David and Claire, showing that he actually murdered her – then again at the end, all of a sudden, the ghosts seem to be real, as dead Alice kills David by holding him under the water like he’d done to her. I mean, isn’t this a huge confusion of the movie in regards to its own logic? That does not make any sense to me, and I was actually letdown, hard. It felt like a cinematic slap in the mouth to have such a flip flop sense of movie logic. It’s just a big time writing blunder, in my opinion. Ruined what could’ve been a great film.
The very last few moments (you’ll know the ones – involving his son and severe tragedy) are absolutely terrifying, however, the whole finale is an absolute mess. If something bad happens in the middle of a film, in terms of poor writing, it can at least be saved throughout the remainder; if you end the film with an awful finale that also goes against parts of your own script, then there’s nowhere to go, you’ve finished on a sour note.
For me, The Canal is a 3 out of 5 stars. It’d be closer to greatness if only the entire final reel of the film hadn’t squandered all that horrifying potential by going with a conclusion that is far too typical. Atmosphere in a horror – any film really – is high on my list, and this one has it; tons. But I just couldn’t walk away from this without feeling mad at the movie. Sure, I didn’t write it, I don’t get to choose how Ivan Kavanagh makes the story work. If it were me, I would’ve certainly stuck with the whole supernatural angle as being present, real, and the true murderer. By letting the end clue up with David being the killer added to the fact he is then killed by the ghost of his murdered wife, it makes things look amateurish. The whole of the film is incredible, honestly, I couldn’t get enough of it. If things hadn’t ended the way they did, The Canal would easily be one of the best films out last year, and also one of the best in horror I’ve seen in the past 4-5 years. Instead, this builds to a messy finish, only a mediocre horror once things come out in the wash. I recommend seeing it for yourself – judge on your own – but I won’t watch this again, only to feel the disappointment of a missed opportunity.