The Canal begins with a simple but rhythmic collage of title cards and words of warning by a film archivist, David (Rupert Evans), to an impatient audience of schoolchildren about to peer at a series of silent film reels. Writer-director Ivan Kavanagh would seem to be promising 90 minutes’ worth of fourth-wall-breaking unease, of terror roused from the gulf between persona and the idea of film projection as a blowup of personal subjectivities. But that promise is fraudulent, and revealed as such the moment David learns—via old-timey crime footage so unconvincing as to suggest he’s being punk’d—that a series of grisly murders took place in the house where he and his wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra), have moved into. That his realization alone is enough to rouse whatever malevolent, silent-all-these-years entity lives in and around their home is just one of many examples of how parched this handsome-looking freakout is of imagination.
The film’s title refers to the murky body of water not far from where David and Alice live, and where her body turns up soon after he learns of her having an affair. Upon screening “Crime Scene 1902,” David slips into a slipstream from which he never ascends. And just as he’s provoked by a hallucinogenic vision of Alice and her lover graphically bumping uglies, audiences are teased with the green-eyed monster within him holding a hammer above the lover’s head. Sanity appears to prevail, as he throws the tool into the canal, but soon he’s meeting not so cute, and inside the grossest and most improbably open-to-the-public restroom in the world, with the creepy Ciarán Hinds lookalike who lives inside his walls. And with that, the stage is set for a series of predictable standoffs between David and police, his babysitter, and his personal-space-defying co-worker (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) about who could have done Alice in.
There’s a creeping unease to some of the films’ scares that can be discomfiting, in David trying to discover if a ghost is really driving him to madness. But rather than rhyme David’s troubles with memory to the fragility of the film stock he often toys with, Kavanagh presents the character’s ready access to film labs and projection booths as a device to simply expedite his sleuthing. Unlike David Lynch, Kavanagh isn’t interested in catching ideas like fish, of linking the degradation of film to the degradation of consciousness. For this metaphorically averse filmmaker, the ritual of David spooling film and threading a projector is merely an excuse to perforate eardrums with the hopped-up sounds of arcane methods of film projection. When David points a projector at a wall with a hole in at, thus conveniently blocking the full truth of what lies beneath his madness, Kavanagh reveals that his filmic instincts merely hang on the surface of things.