There’s no 2014 horror film that was more critically acclaimed than The Babadook, which used tragedy-induced madness as the springboard for a truly effective horror story. It’s a shame that so few seem to have seen it, because The Canal does much the same thing, and is every bit as impressive as last year’s horror darling.
Written and directed by Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh, The Canal centers on film archivist David, who learns through vintage crime scene videos that a man killed his entire family in the home he shares with his wife and young son, back in the early 1900s. After his wife drowns in the titular canal, David becomes convinced that a demonic entity is to blame, and his happy life unravels into a waking nightmare.
I’m home alone right now and as I sit here writing this review, with all the lights in the house intentionally turned on, I can’t help but feel incredibly unsettled, like a kid who’s convinced there’s a monster in his bedroom closet. If that’s not the hallmark of a potent horror film then I’m not sure what is – and if The Canal isn’t the scariest horror film of 2014, then I’m also not sure what is.
Like The Babadook, what makes the horror of The Canal so potent is that it’s got more going for it than a house and an evil entity – the two things that Hollywood seems to think are all you need, to make a horror movie. Though it at first appears to be another movie about a happy husband and wife moving into a haunted house, this Irish ghost story makes a surprising jump-ahead in time early on, taking us to a less-than-happy point in their lives.
At least, it’s a unhappy point for David’s wife Alice, who we find out has been cheating on her husband for quite some time. This discovery, on top of his wife’s subsequent death and coupled with the revelation that a murder took place in his home, is the perfect catalyst for our main character’s mind to completely fracture, and we’re never sure if the nightmarish imagery he’s experiencing is real or a delusional byproduct of everything that’s going on.
Of course, in typical horror movie fashion, nobody in David’s life believes him when he says that a mysterious figure resides in his house, and Kavanagh smartly spends the majority of the film leaving those questions hanging in the balance. Has David conjured up these nightmares as a way of dealing with his wife’s death or is there really an entity out to destroy his family? Well, let’s just say that the answers are both satisfying and bone chilling.
There’s a lot of James Wan inspiration going on in The Canal, and Kavanagh proves that he can do Wan as well as Wan can do Wan. From the color palette to the sound design, The Canal feels very much like something Wan would make, which is needless to say a major compliment. But there’s also a good deal of Japanese horror inspiration going on here, particularly when it comes to one scene during the finale that is sure to make those little hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention.
Rather than relying completely on cheap jump scares, The Canal delivers an atmosphere that is genuinely unnerving from nearly the moment the film begins, building to a point that you’re likely to contemplate turning the lights on for the remainder of its runtime. An inherently creepy hand-crank camera and an ominous hole in the wall make for some of the film’s best scares, and when all is said and done you can expect your sleeping patterns to be disrupted.
There’s nothing particularly original about The Canal, and comparisons to films like Sinister are inevitable, but that’s beside the point. What’s remarkable about the film is how effective it is at getting under your skin and unnerving you, managing to do both things better than any other horror film released last year. This is psychological horror at its finest, making even the scariest modern day Hollywood horror films look like child’s play.
Just as the events of this one are a waking nightmare for its main character, so too is the film a waking nightmare for the viewer. If you like your horror scary, turn off the lights and take a dip in The Canal.
That is, if you dare.
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