Tribeca 2014 Review: Ivan Kavanagh Dumps All of His Fears into THE CANAL

Take one part Lynchian weirdness, one part Polanski paranoia, toss in a hefty dose of J-Horror, mix 'em and cook 'em in a pot like gumbo, as the noted American poet Ice Cube once said, add just a smidgen of Darby O'Gill and the Little People for flavor, and you have Ivan Kavanagh's Gaelic scare-fest, The Canal.

Okay, so that might not be entirely accurate, but you get the idea. And if you don't, the idea is: that's a whole lot of shit crammed in there. To be fair, it tastes much better than it has any right to, but it still doesn't congeal to form a cohesive whole. In addition to the tonal palette, there are a lot of story ideas running around, fighting for dominance, and a little more focus would have worked wonders. Because there are some great sequences in this film, and some genuine scares to be had. (I can't remember the last time a journalist shrieked during a press screening.)

Rupert Evans plays David, a film archivist who suspects his wife is cheating on him. Around the same time, he discovers (rather conveniently) that the dream home they share was the scene of a brutal turn-of-the-century crime. Real or imagined, weird shit begins to go down and madness ensues. What follows is a series of is-he-or-isn't-he set pieces that culminates in an over-the-top assault on the senses.

Sound design plays a major role in building the tension, especially during the surreal montages and newsreel footage utilized throughout the film. The crackle and hiss of audio noise highlights every synaptic misfire of David's deteriorating mindstate. Props are also due the atmospheric score from Big Ass Spider composer, Ceiri Torjussen. That's right, Big Ass Spider. Someone's come a long way. The photography by relative newcomer (to features) Piers McGrail is also quite good. Apparently, they used "an authentic Universal movie camera from 1915" to film some scenes, which was "thought to have filmed some action in the trenches during World War 1." Pretty cool.

As far as the acting, everyone comports themselves admirably. Inexperienced (read: bad) actors can relegate a genre film to the status of B-movie, a problem which The Canal does not suffer from. Of special note are British character actor Steve Oram as Detective McNamara, who adds a bit of oddity and welcome humor, and young Calum Heath, who turns in what could have easily been a grating child performance. Way to not ruin the movie, kid!

Despite all this good stuff, one can't help but feel a little overwhelmed. Or underwhelmed. It just doesn't click. In an interview with Indiewire, Kavanagh said he wanted to "make a highly visceral cinema experience, filled with nightmarish imagery and scenarios, to fill the film with [his] own fears." If that's true, the man is scared of a lot of shit. We all know fear is irrational, but storytelling generally isn't. If the director had focused on just a few specific fears, the film would have greatly benefited.

That being said, Kavanagh is a talented filmmaker and it shows. The Canal is miles better than the rote schlock Hollywood churns out. In another interview, which I can't locate at the moment, he talked about how he wanted to make a film that required multiple viewings. I'd gladly give The Canal another shot before I sat through the latest remake, to see if there was anything I missed.


Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor for LitReactor.com. He has also written for ChuckPalahniuk.net.

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