(Warning: This review contains spoilers regarding the plot of The Canal as well as descriptions of disturbing violence and sexual imagery.)
David (Rupert Evans) is a film archivist with the National Archive, living happily with his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) and his son Billy (Calum Heath), or so he believes. When reviewing film of a crime scene, David realizes that a brutal murder happened in his family’s home, and shortly after, Alice’s body is found in a nearby canal. In the days and weeks following her death, David starts to question his own senses and suspects that Alice was killed by a ghost or other-worldly creature, and he worries that the ghost will return to claim his son Billy as well. Is David’s home and family haunted by the ghosts of an ancient murder, or is David losing his mind because he really killed Alice?
I have given The Canal a lot of thought since seeing it because my immediate reaction was deep hatred and anger. I wanted to move past my first reaction and give myself time to consider the motivations of filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh, who wrote and directed The Canal. Unfortunately, it seems that the more I think about The Canal, the more I loathe this ugly, hateful film.
Violence against women or children on film is always tricky, and it is easy in the horror genre to cross the line into exploitative and tasteless. In The Canal, women are beaten, stabbed, drowned, and choked to death, but my problem isn’t the level of violence. I know I have seen movies, especially in the horror genre, with far more violent acts against women. No, my problem with The Canal is that the violence against them is framed as a consequence for their actions. Alice is murdered because she was cheating on David, and she was planning to leave him. On the surface, Claire is strangled because she doesn’t believe David’s ghost stories, but it is also implied that she wanted to sleep with David even while Alice was still alive. She must be punished. Billy’s grandmother is a self-centered horror of a mother-in-law who can only think of taking Billy away from David as quickly as she can. Even Billy’s nanny is pushed around and shoved into a closet, begging for her life, because she thinks David is unstable.
Alice, the worst offender of all, is also forced to suffer further humiliation in death for her infidelity. When she died, she was pregnant with her lover’s child. How will the film further degrade her? By having her give birth to her dead love child in a sewer, the camera focused squarely on her genitals.
Besides the violence and sexual humiliation, the story is problematic all around, and the ending wants to have its bloody cake and eat it too. Instead of choosing between ghosts or psychosis, The Canal awkwardly combines them together in an ending that will probably not satisfy horror fans or psychological thriller fans.
As a genre, horror can allow audiences to explore uncomfortable emotions and situations in a safe space, and it can have profound, universal messages. Carrie asked what would happen if the kids who were bullied in high school were pushed too far. Frank Darabont’s The Mist showed what happens to humanity when hope dies, and last year’s Dark Touch explored how society too often fails the victims of child abuse. I have no idea what Ivan Kavanagh wanted to ask or explore in The Canal, but whatever it was, I lost it in the barrage of violence, sexual humiliation, and ugliness pervading the movie.
On a last note, the sound mix in The Canal was very off-putting. When the film cut back to David’s screening room at the National Archives, the sounds of the projector were painfully loud, much louder than the rest of the mix. At one point, I saw another critic putting their hands over their ears until the scene had ended. I already didn’t have a good opinion of the film, but this production detail made the screening even more unpleasant.