Welcome back to a new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re taking a trip to the Emerald Isle. But don’t expect a light romp along Ireland’s coast or in its lush forests. Instead, we’re navigating the bleak landscape of repressed male aggression in Ivan Kavanagh’s dread-soaked film, The Canal. Our guide this month is Christine Makepeace, a horror author whose latest book of short stories, The Sound of Breaking Glass, dives into topics such as “loss of self, isolation, and the soul-crushing machine that is capitalism.” She’s also the co-host of The Feminine Critique and serves as a consulting editor for Certified Forgotten. So, you could say she knows a thing or two about horror and film.
Released in 2014, The Canal actually managed to fly well below my radar, so I went in knowing very little beyond the basic IMDb synopsis: A film archivist finds his sanity crumbling after he is given an old 16mm film reel with footage from a horrific murder that occurred in the early 1900s.
What’s interesting about the film is that said archivist, David (Rupert Evans), is clearly in some turmoil well before he peeps the aforementioned film. His marriage to Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) is deteriorating as the couple seems to be going through the motions, both with each other and in their interactions with young son Billy (Calum Heath). Unable to open up to Alice about his fears that she is cheating on him, his reality starts crumbling after seeing archived police footage of a murder that took place in the family’s home in the early 20th century. After he follows Alice and confirms that she’s sleeping with someone else, he blacks out in a nearby public bathroom and wakes up the next day to find out she’s missing. When police discover her body in a nearby canal, David becomes their primary suspect. But he’s certain her death is linked to the visions he’s been having in the archive footage he watches, and he becomes obsessed with catching the supernatural culprit. (Here’s your standard Spoiler Alert, as I’m sure we’ll be getting into the specifics about the nature of that culprit later on).
Now, Christine, I completely missed this one when it was released. Do you remember how you found out about it and when you first got to see it?
I don’t really recall the details, but I definitely saw this one shortly after its release. Its synopsis had me hooked—I love movies about film and filmmaking, and The Canal approaches it in a unique way. I’m also a big fan of European horror, so this ticked a lot of boxes for me.
One of the first things I picked up on in this movie is that it’s very unhappy, and I mean that in a very specific way. Obviously, we’re talking horror, but the unhappiness goes beyond that. I was struck by the unease I felt almost immediately by David and Alice’s relationship. From forced conversations to a brief sex scene almost completely devoid of joy, I felt this sense of being trapped along with the characters. Did you have a similar reaction?
Oh, definitely. I hadn’t rewatched this one in a while, and there was a moment of blinding panic where I thought, ‘Am I going to hate this?’ Because David is so deeply dislikable. What stuck out to me this watch-through is his sense of ownership over Alice. From the jump his jealousy is his only motivator. It’s hard to watch someone self-destruct.
I like how you call this film “unhappy,” because it opens with David and a pregnant Alice buying a new house. It sets us up by showing what should be the beginning of the young family’s lives, only to flash forward to the miserable reality. I think that makes David’s spiral even more difficult to stomach; it’s a little too relatable.
That initial scene is so intriguing because it gives that brief glimpse that the house is haunted, so we know something is going on there. But then with that five-year jump, it leaves a lot to the imagination about what’s been going on in the intervening years. Has the house been infecting David’s mind? Have his own inner demons manifested the “haunting?” What’s your read on the situation?
I don’t know that I have a hard and fast take on what’s really going on. I do think it works either way, which is awesome. A lot of stories don’t hold up to multiple interpretations, but I find The Canal does. There could be no malevolent forces, and David could simply be a jealous man who’s gradually grown tired of his domestic life. He could be a guy driven mad by his wife’s lies and indiscretions. I mean, we don’t even know what came first, her infidelity or his wild possessiveness.
Then, if you do believe what David’s seeing, did he awaken the house? Was it “infecting” them? Did it cause the couple's life to crumble? I do think, based on the film’s final moments, that something supernatural was going on. But even then, I can talk myself out of that. Its ambiguity is one of its strengths.
There’s connectivity between The Canal and some of the other films you recommended, including Honeymoon and A Dark Song. These stories use bleak tones and aesthetics to explore fraught relationships, and I’m wondering if that was just a coincidence in your selections, or do you find yourself drawn to those types of stories?
I do tend to gravitate toward smaller, more character-driven stories. It’s a good way to work things out! There’s a lot of catharsis to be had in quiet, introspective stories about grief and loss. They’re things we all deal with, and I personally prefer seeing them explored from a horror or speculative angle. I tend to avoid emotional dramas, but if you put a ghost or an angel or an alien in it, I’m in.
I like characters I can chew on, and David certainly fits that description. I think what makes The Canal interesting and unique is just how difficult it is to extend David any empathy. But at the same time, the film hinges on the viewer’s willingness to stick with him. For me, the intrigue keeps me engaged even when I might not want to be. Because you’re never sure how in control David really is, and that adds to the mystery.
I agree, both that David is extremely unlikeable and that the movie still kept me engaged despite that fact. Kavanagh also doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to hide the fact that David killed Alice. Early in the first act he disassociates and sees her murder from a third-person perspective, but you can hear her yelling, “No, David!” So, it becomes more about if/how David is going to find out. What do you think Kavanagh is looking to explore in framing the narrative that way?
For me it highlights David’s disengagement from his life. It’s like he doesn’t feel in control even when he very clearly is. Framing it as though he’s watching himself from afar emphasizes that without feeling heavy-handed. I’m not sure it’s intentional, but the way the story’s told reminds me of living with an abusive person or someone in the throes of addiction. There’s also themes of inherited trauma that tie it all together.
Kavanagh wrote the screenplay, and he explains that he delved into his own fears when developing it. In addition to the addiction you mention above, there’s a malevolence that permeates all of the men. David is the obvious example, but there’s also the ghost who is said to have murdered his own family. There’s also Detective McNamara (Steve Oram), who seems more interested in being right about David as the perpetrator than he is in preventing more harm. Does it seem fair to say that Kavanagh’s fear stems from the potential for men to hurt those around them?
As a viewer, it absolutely feels that way. The women in the film, of which there are many, are treated like cannon fodder. Not necessarily by the movie itself, but definitely by the men who inhabit the story. For me, the most egregious example is the Claire character [David’s work colleague, who is indicated as being romantically interested in him], played by the wonderful Antonia Campbell-Hughes. By the time she meets her fate, there is absolutely no reason for David to have gotten her involved. It’s driven by his selfish need for support—for someone to bear witness. The women are presented as disposable players, something that would typically cause me to turn on a film. But in The Canal, it's an integral part of the story—it’s part of the horror.
I appreciate that Kavanagh takes a different approach in his use of Ireland as a setting. Usually filmmakers will lean into the more scenic and whimsical elements of the Irish countryside, even in horror films. But the Ireland shown in The Canal is a stark, drab place. Even the supernatural elements bring with them an Industrial Revolution-era aesthetic. What did you think about that choice and how it fits in with the story?
I definitely look to Ireland for folk and nature-based horror. What’s interesting is, even with this unique setting, it still manages to be deeply connected to nature. So even though you don’t get lost in the woods, those familiar elements are still there. I’m thinking specifically about the titular canal. It’s a piece of wild, untamable nature dropped into civilization. I love the choice, though. Things appear grimy and well-tread–I’m thinking specifically of those awful public toilets! There are constant reminders that we’re just retracing old steps. It makes for a surprisingly haunted setting.
The film’s final act doesn’t leave much by way of hope. David realizes his role in Alice’s death, complete with a grisly apparition of an undead Alice giving birth to the baby he hadn’t known she was pregnant with. And while you think there may be at least the tiniest silver lining as young Billy is driven away by his grandmother, we get one final gut-punch as David’s ghost convinces him to kill himself so that the family can stay together. Can we take anything away from this ending, or is it pure nihilism?
There's definitely something there about generational trauma and passing down toxic beliefs. But when David successfully encourages his son to end his life, he essentially ends the chance for anyone in the family to heal. I don’t know if there’s any positivity that can be extrapolated from that, but, as is true of most horror stories, there’s definitely an opportunity to see one’s self. For people that come from abuse or have family strife, sometimes it’s cathartic just to see yourself in the horrors of another.
Given that this is a fairly recent film, it doesn’t make sense to remake it for a more modern take, but might there be a reason to bring this story across the pond? Are there any interesting adjustments that could be made if the story took place in the States? And it’s a fairly self-contained story, but if you were asked to make a sequel, would there be anything you’d want to explore or any new angles you’d approach?
It’s tough with something so self-contained. I think the obvious jumping-off point would be, ‘What happens to the next residents of that house?’ And that could be a lot of fun if executed properly. It’s a tough balance to strike with sequels. You run the risk of retreading what’s already been done—with potentially less effective results. Or, like The Boy and its sequel, you can lose the ambiguity or grounding that made it great. I’m also not sure what Americanizing the story would add. You could do the same thing with an old farmhouse in New England, but to what end?
The violence and paranoia in this movie transcend regional and cultural specifics. David’s character could be anyone, and that’s why it’s so unsettling.