“Who wants to see some ghosts?” The question is a trick one, posed by David Williams (The Man in the High Castle‘s Rupert Evans) to a lecture theatre full of students visiting the National Film Archive before he shows them a series of early films, noting that every person they will see projected onto the screen is long since dead.
Yet ghosts are exactly what he finds when his colleague Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) asks him to catalogue some old canisters of film which show a police investigation dating to 1902, a murder on Black Street, his street, his house where he lives with his wife Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) and their son Billy.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he tells Alice that night as they prepare for an evening out. “Horrible things happen in every old house.” But he is worried. Worried that she no longer loves him the way he loves her. Worried that her attention has drifted. Worried about the late night messages she receives on her phone which she insists are from work.
When Alice fails to come home one night David alerts the police, but the unimaginative and unsympathetic Detective McNamara (Sightseers‘ Steve Oram) is a stranger to the gentle touch, confirming to David not only that everyone but him knew that his wife was indeed having an affair with one of her clients but making it clear that David is the prime suspect in her disappearance. “People always suspect the husband. You know why that is? Because it’s always the husband.”
Written and directed by Ivan Kavanagh, with much of it told ambiguously through what might be nightmares, hallucinations, premonitions or guilt-fuelled fantasies, the heart of The Canal is as much that body of water which runs behind Black Street as the house itself, overgrown, stagnant and deep, filled with secrets and dread even before the police begin dredging it in an echo of that killing over a century before.
Determined that his wife was murdered, David begins his own parallel investigation, immersing himself in the dark history of the house and losing himself in the film reels, but beyond the screening room influenced madness of Berberian Sound Studio this carries in it the distorted shadows of The Shining and Lost Highway in the warped narrative presented to the viewer by the increasingly unstable David and also Sapphire and Steel in the recurring figure who sooner or later crops up in every reel.
With Evans featured in almost frame it is the question of how much is real and how much is manufactured in his head which drives the film, increasingly isolated with his extended family turning against him even as he tries to protect Billy and babysitter Sophie, Kavanagh generating genuine tension and some very effective jump scares by playing against the expectation of the build-up.
While not entirely satisfying – the prelude moving into the house followed moments later by the caption “five years later” serves no purpose that could not have been achieved by other means – it is an effective low budget independent horror, treading the dark waters more competently than many similar efforts which focus solely on shock and gore rather than the horror of a mind slowly unhinging.