This is an annoying fact: there have been about 500 new cinema screens built in the UK in the last ten years. However if you want to see a small, well made local horror movie up on the big screen you can forget it. I remembered this fact as I watched The Canal on my laptop with the lights off desperately trying to kid myself that I was watching it in the cinema. I even occasionally moved my fingers across the bottom of the screen pretending they were patrons going to the lavatory. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
The thing is The Canal IS a small film. There are no spectacular vistas or crazy computer graphics. It doesn’t have a cast of thousands and most of it is set in a not particularly large victorian town house. However it IS cinematic in its visual and aural storytelling and I felt I really wasn’t seeing it how director Ivan Kavanagh intended it to be seen. Not that I imagine most directors have dreams of people watching their efforts on an iPhone or some such. I know the nature of film watching has changed and there are definitely some days when I totally appreciate being able to watch a film on the go. However, must the cinemas be almost exclusively showing either the big studio or the independent art house films? Where is the room for the little guys? I’d have loved to have seen The Canal up on the silver screen. It is where it belongs. I can’t wait to get my flat, as soon as I do, fuck the mouldy bathroom, I’m getting a projector.
Anyway, I say local. In fact The Canal was shot and funded in Dublin but it has a large chunk of British talent in front and behind the camera and we’re all friends nowadays. Rupert Evans plays a freshly married young film archivist who moves into an old victorian house with his heavily pregnant, and model-like, wife. When they first arrive Evans sees someone moving about the place but thinks little more of it. Five years later and their young son is super cute (and weirdly like a real child, not so much acting, its as if a real kid has wondered onto set, he’s great) and Evans thinks his wife is having an affair. Added to that is the huge coincidence that at work he receives some old police footage from 1902 where he discovers that a man murdered his wife in the same house he lives in, and dumped her body in the nearby canal.
Obviously between Evans’s jealousy of his wife and his obsession with the house’s past things go to shit very quickly. We are also very much in Amityville Horror and The Shining territory here. However, Kavanagh brings a very strong style of his own to the proceedings. For example where Kubrick would have gone grand and creepy for his ghostly elements, here we have very small details, cracks in walls, dark shadows in the corner of rooms, fingers reaching over doors. Sure, this is partly a matter of economy but the small scale really works in the film’s favour.
It also helps that everybody in the film is fantastic. Obviously Evans has the most difficult job of trying to prove the weird occurrences are not just his imagination whilst also spiralling down into madness. He does this by going low key or silent where other actors might have gone over the top. Actually, now I think about it, what this film most reminds me of is The Innocents, the incredible Deborah Kerr movie based on The Turn Of The Screw. There is even a couple of shots with a ghost standing in the weeds of the canal which look identical to the 1959 classic. Evans like Kerr before him, has to keep the audience on his side even though we know things are almost certain to end in tragedy. I think if you are going to hamage any film then The innocents is as good as one as any.
The film seems to have been meticulously constructed with lots of jagged editing and weird imagery. The sound design is also an intrical part of the atmosphere which creates this haunting descent into hell. Visually we have the old archive footage of the murders (actually shot on a hundred year old camera) and meanwhile throughout the movie we hear odd scratches on the soundtrack as if something dreadful is standing just off screen next to the boom operator. Plus there isn’t a cheap jump scare in the whole movie which is refreshing.
That’s not to say that the film is perfect. The main problem being that the story, although very well told, is maybe a touch too familiar, old fashioned even. Also Evan’s work colleague is played by Antonia Campbell-Hughes who is such a strange and interesting actor, but her character isn’t given much to do which surely is some kind of cinematic crime.
However, let’s not worry too much about that. There are moments of genuine fright: there was one point where I actually felt the hairs stand up on the back of the neck* – something that almost never happens nowadays to this jaded old horror fan. But then that is the main problem with The Canal: I get the feeling that by the very nature of this insular little movie I would have felt more scares, and more hairs, had I seen it up on the big screen, all encompassing my sound and vision in a dark room full of strangers, rather than my dimly lit bedroom with a bed full of fingers.
* At which point I thought “how much hair do I have on my back!?!”