Our semi-regular survey of celluloid horror, exploitation, or whatever the hell else captures my interest from foreign shores takes us this time to Ireland, where in 2014 writer/director Ivan Kavanagh concocted a stylish, intriguing, and sometimes even scary little modestly-budgeted number that I just found on Netflix last night called The Canal (which is also available on Blu-ray and DVD from an outfit uninspiringly billing itself as — I wish I were making this up — Team Marketing). Admittedly, the title didn’t do a whole lot to grab my attention, but the poster looked cool, and sometimes that’s all it takes for me to decide to give something a whirl — and I’m betting the same is probably true for you, as well, dear reader.
Now, maybe it’s simply down to the fact that I went into this with precisely zero expectations, but I think there’s more to it than that, because truth be told I walked away from Kavanagh’s flick genuinely, if quietly, impressed. It’s not some mind-blowing new take on familiar old horror tropes, nor is it some wholly original out-of-left-field modern masterpiece of the macabre, but it is an entirely well-executed, moody, atmospheric story that doesn’t set the bar too terribly high for itself and therefore succeeds quite admirably in surpassing it. Hmmmm — a movie that’s content with just doing a good job rather than re-inventing the wheel? What a novel idea.
The reasonably gripping plot centers around a film archivist named David (played by Rupert Evans), a guy who’s progressively becoming more and more paranoid about the extra-curricular activities of his wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra), and her work client/”friend”, Alex (Carl Shaaban). To make matters worse, his co-worker, Claire (Antonia Campbell Hughes) has recently come across a reel of old footage showing that David’s house was the site of a particularly brutal murder back in 1902. Seeking to kill two birds with one stone by fleeing from the malevolent entity he’s becoming increasingly convinced still haunts his spread and catch his Mrs. “in the act” at the same time, our by-now-pretty-goddamn-unhinged protagonist tails his two-timing partner to a local canal, where all his worst suspicions are confirmed. Needless to say, when Alice turns up missing shortly after her illicit rendezvous, David is the only suspect — but was it really him, as ball-busting cop McNamara (Steve Oram) believes, or is there more to this whole “evil presence” thing? David certainly seems to think so, but he’s going to need to prove it fast, or else it’s hello Irish prison — by the way, do they still call ’em gaols over there?
A series of standout performances help carry the just-above- average material here, particularly from Evans, who really convinces you that he’s becoming unglued. It would be pretty easy to cross the line into pure melodrama in the role of David, but he skillfully manages to avoid that and to be both creepy and sympathetic, in turn, at precisely the right times. The supporting players all do nice work with what they’re given, as well, to be sure, but a top-notch effort in the lead role is what’s required to carry a film of this nature, and that’s exactly what we get here.
As for the guy in the director’s chair, Kavanagh shows a strong eye for shot composition and lighting, and manages to pace his self-scripted yarn very nicely indeed, ratcheting up the tension at just the right times and equally knowing when to dial things back a notch in order to maximize the impact of the body-blows he delivers later. Some of his swings do end up missing, sure, but more often that not he hits the mark, and his is a name I’ll definitely be watching for in future.
At the end of the day, then, The Canal may not be the most ambitious new horror flick you’re likely to stumble across in a currently-crowded field of contenders, but it’s definitely one of the more confidently-realized. Both director and cast have a solid grasp of the fundamental “dos” and “don’ts” of the genre, and manage to side-step the easy trap of letting their reach exceed their grasp. This isn’t a film you’re likely to be talking about for years to come, by any means, but you’ll look back on it the next day and say to yourself “ya know, that was pretty damn good.” If “pretty damn good” sounds alright to you, then you’d be well-advised to give this one a shot.