One of the highlights of Film4 FrightFest 2014, Ivan Kavanagh’s shadowy horror tale starts with film archivist David asking a group of school kids in a cinema if they would like to see ghosts before showing them a silent film from the turn of the 20th century: everyone they will see on screen is dead, he tells them. This is an ominous and apt introduction, not only to the ghost story that will follow, but to the film’s look backward at the disappearing forms of its own medium.
After five years of living in a beautiful old house by a canal with his wife Alice and young son, David begins to suspect that she is having an affair. At the same time, he finds footage at work of a 1902 crime scene and realises that the murder of a cheating wife and their children by her husband took place in their house. As his suspicions become stronger, he begins to have visions of the sinister murderer and increasingly loses his grip on reality.
What makes The Canal so captivating is less the familiar story than David’s intensifying nightmarish mindscape, constructed around the secret-filled canal, neon-lit public toilets, holes behind walls and underground tunnels, building a dark, oppressive atmosphere enhanced by strong colours and elusive shadows. His obsession with – and possible possession by – the sinister murderer of 1902 does not echo only his jealousy and fear: he is a prisoner of the past that his work represents, unable or unwilling to move on and live in the modern world to which his wife seems so well attuned.
Just like its protagonist, The Canal is haunted by the ghosts of its own history, by the eerie pulsing light of silver nitrate and the fleeting beauty of its luminous contrast, in thrall to its hypnotic power, as though it were impossible to ever equal it, but also attempting to preserve it, fighting a lost fight against the evolution of the medium, trying to keep what is dead alive. Interestingly, this simmering anxiety about the future of film was present in a number of other titles in the FrightFest programme. It may be telling that The Canal ends on a bleak, uncompromising note, with the characters condemned to remain trapped in an ever repeating cycle: it seems that for them as for cinema there is no escape from the past.
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