At first glance, The Canal, if you’ll pardon the made up word, is very “trope-y.” The opening, with hunky Rupert Evans and his pregnant wife Antonia Campbell Hughes putting an offer on a house, includes an ominous shot that practically narrates itself: “It was supposed to be the perfect home…” The plotline, in which Evans’ film archivist discovers footage of a grisly crime committed inside his family’s home, could be lifted from the Ethan Hawke starrer Sinister. And Evans’ mental deterioration suggests Jack Nicholson in The Shining and James Brolin in The Amityville Horror.
The difference here is that writer/director Kavanagh, an acclaimed auteur with only one previous horror credit, is interested primarily in character and acting. He directs Evans to a brilliant and fully layered performance. Evans grows increasingly paranoid as he becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him—and that Something Evil threatens him and his adorable son Calum Heath. He starts to scare the nanny and his coworker (Hannah Hoekstra) at the archive, and to arouse the suspicions of a local detective (a wonderfully slimy Steve Oram). And he’s troubled with increasingly horrifying, surrealistic visions that would make David Lynch proud. But through it all, he remains sympathetic and vulnerable—in contrast to Nicholson, who’s clearly bonkers from the first reel of his movie. It doesn’t hurt that he’s, to use the technical term, hot. The guy deserves to be a movie star, abroad, in America, or anywhere where people have eyes.
As the narrative progresses, the audience starts to wonder if this is a horror film in the traditional sense or a depiction of mental breakdown. That ambiguity is part of what elevates The Canal beyond the familiar. Regardless of supernatural elements, the film is supremely scary, a visually artful slow burner that wallops the audience with terrifying jolts and unsettling questions. This reviewer jumped and screamed, loudly, at the screening, eliciting laughter from the crowd. But I was the one laughing loudest, because I love it when a horror film works this well and displays this much intelligence.
The Canal screens at the Tribeca Film Festival Wednesday, April 23 at 10pm at Chelsea's Bowtie Cinemas.
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