As is often the case with most high profile film festivals, Tribeca offers a veritable potpourri of different genres and film subjects. Thus far I have reviewed movies that run the gamut from psycho sexual chamber piece to music documentary. So, in the spirit of keeping you (the reader) on your toes, next on the docket is a horror thriller from Ireland entitled THE CANAL. Directed by Ivan Kavanaugh (THE FADING LIGHT) and starring Rupert Evans (HELLBOY), THE CANAL is about a family that moves into a haunted house resting right by – you guessed it – a canal. The history of both the canal and the house are inextricably entwined as the house was the scene of a brutal murder whilst the canal served its purpose as the victims’ dumping ground. Since this occurred during the turn of the 20th century, the macabre story behind this home is understandably neglected by the real estate agent who hands over the keys to the new tenants.
Before I continue further allow me some context. I am a huge horror movie nerd. And my tastes in the genre range from the classic (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) to the slasher (the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and HALLOWEEN), the humorous (SHAUN OF THE DEAD and EVIL DEAD II), to the gory (the original DAWN OF THE DEAD) and even the atmospheric, sometimes cerebral chills of the supernatural (the original THE HAUNTING and THE SHINING). So on one hand I welcome any opportunity to be introduced to a new horror title. On the other I approach each new film with trepidation. That is, I find myself awfully concerned that what I’m about to see will let me down and thus be unworthy of the precedents set before it. More so than any other genre I want to be impressed. I want to be scared. I want to be blown away. And yet at my age I found myself more frequently disappointed than not. Especially when it comes to horror.
So when I am confronted with a concept similar to that of THE CANAL, films like THE SHINING, POLTERGEIST, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, even that oddball yet underrated classic BURNT OFFERINGS immediately comes to mind. Ghost stories that also serve as metaphors for the disintegration of the family unit. And to be honest, I am not that cynical when it comes to the recycling of concepts from film to film as long as they are done well. While THE CANAL is somewhat proficiently directed, having its setting be in what seems to be an urban Ireland instead of a rural one is not enough to stand out among the films that came before. Yes its location is “exotic” to those outside of Great Britain. But that fails to disguise the fact that not only does THE CANAL lack originality in concept, but it also lacks originality in approach.
The principal lead is a devoted father and husband who works at a National Film Archive. This allows him access to historical footage which specifically include clips of the house he has been living in. It is through this device he discovers the terrible crimes that preceded his residency; a fact that was not made privy to him or his then pregnant wife when they purchased the place five years ago. Viewing the footage seems to have a hallucinatory effect on him and so we are greeted with that age old horror movie trope as to whether the ensuing supernatural events are actually happening or if they are simply figments of his imagination. Adding to this is the growing suspicion that his wife is having an affair. And how this is supposed to recollect in eerie ways the events that led up to the grisly murders in his home.
THE CANAL certainly looks good thanks to Piers McGrail’s cinematography. But director Kavanaugh tips his hat way too early. Instead of building up to the horrors that lie within by adding subtle layers of dread upon dread, he bludgeons us with shock edits and loud noises from the very start of the film. While I get this is the director’s way of establishing tone, it’s too much too soon and only serves to grate instead of unnerve. Especially when the so called threat (and potential havoc that follows) does not make its introduction until 20 minutes into the movie. There is also an insistence on keeping everything so deadly serious. There is no humor in the way real people behave in real situations. And yet there are jarringly inappropriate moments featuring characters that seemed to have stepped out of another movie altogether. Like the socially dysfunctional detective played by Steve Oram, a character who would have been better placed in an Edgar Wright film (In fact, Oram appeared in Wright’s excellent THE WORLD’S END).
And there is a frustrating obtuseness to how characters react to situations. A co-worker blatantly displays her attraction to the film’s married lead and yet he doesn’t register any discomfort or flattery, even. When confronted by the police with key information to a possible crime – information the protagonist was not supposed to know once it was revealed to him (for reasons I won’t spoil I can’t get into the “why” here. Let’s just say our lead knows more than what is initially presented to him) – he responds in ways that are antithetical in terms of how a normal human being would react to such intel. At least try to pretend you are personally effected by the jaw dropping nature of this news because, you know, THE POLICE ARE TELLING THIS TO YOU!! But there is no sense of the need to put up a front whether the main character is hiding something or not.
The biggest sin of THE CANAL rests in the tone deaf way it rips off ideas from other, better horror movies. A good chunk of the film is a little too reminiscent of SINISTER what with the found footage of gruesome deaths and supposed serial killers and how the footage itself appears to invoke spirits to do their nasty things. And not just in concept. It even repeats the execution of shock cuts, loud noises, scratchy images, et cetera. Not only does this have a similar psychological effect on the hero, but this also effects his family in the same, predictably nihilistic ways. Then there is a scene (I kid you not) that is directly lifted from both the Japanese and American versions of THE RING. It is so blatant in its rip-off-ness, it’s as if the filmmakers thought that by simply changing the medium from which this particular boogeyman appears that would be sufficient enough to call it “original.”
Let me put it this way: THE CANAL is the best J-Horror film to come out of Ireland. Wait… it might be the only J-Horror-style film to come out of Ireland. So that really isn’t saying much. It indulges in what is probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to today’s horror movies. LOUD does not equate to SCARY. It’s a lazy person’s way of trying to get a cheap scare out of the audience. Now having said this, there were a few critics who jumped and yelled at my screening. So God bless ’em. But honestly? They were the scariest part of my experience watching this film. Because how could a few seasoned veterans of film criticism not see where this flick was going and therefore allow themselves to be so shocked and scared by what they saw? Because when you blatantly lift ideas from other well established films without presenting anything new to the table beyond a simple change of device or context, then your audience will definitely know where this is headed. And this is the worst piece of criticism I can offer THE CANAL:
It is completely predictable.
This makes me very, very sad. I really wanted to embrace THE CANAL in much the same way I want to embrace any new horror flick that comes down the pike. And I recognize how on the surface this seems to be a sincere attempt make a serious horror film. But there is such a thing as being too serious. Which is not helped by trying to mesh said seriousness with the execution and concepts lifted from better movies. Once you watch the first half hour or so of THE CANAL, you’ll know exactly how the film will end. Because when it comes to horror telegraphing your plot points is unforgivable. And THE CANAL is guilty of this in spades.