“This is the same man I saw the night she was murdered. I think there’s ghosts in my house… I know how fucking crazy this sounds, but I’ve seen things, I’ve heard things, and it’s the only rational explanation!”
The speaker is David Williams (Rupert Evans), a film archivist who five years earlier had moved into a beautiful canal-side house in Dublin with his pregnant wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra). Now with the magic in their relationship gone, Alice straying, and their young son Billy (Calum Heath) all that still keeps them together, David has begun working on black-and-white footage from 1902 which documents a gruesome murder-suicide (involving a cheating wife) that took place in the same house. Then one night, shortly after catching Alice in flagrante with her lover (Carl Shaaban), David has a strange, semiconscious encounter in the most nightmarishly disgusting public convenience to have graced the screen since Trainspotting (1996) – and Alice disappears, her corpse found later in the canal.
“It’s always the husband – every fucking time,” muses dyspeptic police detective McNamara (Steve Oram). Yet with no coherent memory of the event and no evidence of foul play, David is convinced that something supernatural is occurring, and begins trying obsessively to capture on an old camera from work the shadowy figures that he keeps seeing and hearing in his house and by the canal – and we descend with him into either a Satanic world of possession or a miasma of madness.
If Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal opens with David telling a group of school pupils about film’s capacity to trap the ‘real ghosts’ of its long-dead subjects, it is soon conjuring the spirits of horror films past, including the hotel scenes from The Shining, the tunnel sequence from Kill List (both movies, significantly, concerned with the breakdown of destructive fathers) and the invasive long-haired spectre of Ringu (a film which also features a haunted recording). Whether David, an expert in film, is knowingly rehearsing these scenarios or merely being directed by forces through the looking glass (and beyond the grave) remains the key ambiguity in which the film swims – but one way or another he is losing his mind, an event which Kavanagh expertly realises by having his protagonist inhabit a shifting, reflective environment that cracks and crosscuts in sympathy with David’s fragmenting identity. Much of the film’s chilling atmosphere derives from Aza Hand’s extraordinary sound design – a disorienting concoction of scrapes and moans and whispers.
There is a moment near the end of The Canal where David tries to show his concerned colleague Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) the film that he believes proves there are really ghosts – but he projects it on a wall into which he has earlier knocked a big hole, rendering the crucial part of his footage blackly invisible. That hole in the wall becomes a hole in the film, and creates a gaping hole in the narrative which, like the well in the garden leading to an underground sewer, casts everything, including meaning, in deep, dark shadow where the viewer’s imagination is left to play hide and seek.