Horror is not a genre where individual films need to be narratively or stylistically idiosyncratic to work. Scary movies borrow so freely from each other that each of their subsets (“slashers”, “creature features”, “bodily horrors”, etc.) has its own lists of genre-trappings & clichés common to nearly every film under its umbrella. 2014’s stylish Irish ghost story The Canal is smart to acknowledge its heritage openly. The common images & themes it shares with films as varied as 2000s horror like The Ring or Blair Witch, early 20th century black & white scares like The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari, and 70s giallo classics like pretty much any title in Dario Argento’s catalog are so unashamedly open it plays like a knowing homage rather than an unfortunate side-effect of making a genre film. The Canal is so self-aware of the impressive range of horror it manages to cover in its 90min that its protagonist is a film archivist by occupation.
The story begins in a cinema, with the aforementioned film archivist David (played by Rupert Evans) addressing an unruly audience of children. He tells them that since the films about ghosts they are about to watch were filmed long ago and the people featured in them are most likely dead, it’s as if the images themselves are real-life ghosts. It’s a chilling thought that silences the room and it’s one I’ve pondered often, at least since I first read Hervé Guibert’s brilliant collection of photography essays Ghost Image or heard Daniel Johnston’s “It’s Spooky” in high school. The ghosts of The Canal are the believable kind, the kind that actually haunt us: images from the past, spaces that have been tainted by horrific acts, jealousy, regret, etc. The film shares a lot with last year’s The Babadook in that way: there’s a physical, violent threat that stalks its confined world, but it’s a threat that is based in more intangible elements like unhinged emotions and toxic personal relationships. It’s a testament to the film’s success that it can scare on a realistic level while still managing to run wild with obsessing over cinema as a medium, particularly the horror genre.
In addition to tipping its hat to a wide range of horror classics and setting several scenes in a movie theater, The Canal also prominently features images of cameras & projectors doing what they do: recording & displaying film. Giallo films, the most significant influence referenced in The Canal, generally have a particular theme or setting that guide their images, almost like a gimmick. For instance Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is set in a fashion house and is littered with dressing mannequins; Dario Argento’s Opera is, well you get the picture. The Canal’s theme is film itself. Close-up shots of cameras & projectors are paired with loud clicks & whirs of the machines running and quick, disturbing flashes of violence & gore, seemingly from a wide range of different eras in scary filmmaking. The deep red of theater seats in the opening cinema scene plays into the giallo influence as well, as the genre is no stranger to saturated colors. Nor is it a stranger to the overwhelming sounds, lights, and masked killer that follow. The Canal’s intense focus on light & sound design boils cinema down to its most basic elements. The mystery of its mostly off-screen killer pays tribute to the Italian genre films that came before it, putting those elements to use in a genre context.
As film archivist David becomes more frayed in his search for the identity of the killer, the film gradually grows more erratic along with him. As a companion to last year’s similarly giallo-influenced The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, The Canal is a much calmer telling of a very similar story. It chooses not to reach Strange Color’s kaleidoscopic fever pitch until the climax, which is in some ways more true to the genre they’re both referencing. Strange Color pushes the cinematic elements of giallo to new, psychedelic extremes. The Canal uses them to bridge the gap between a seemingly endless list of horror narratives that came before it, to the point where its ghost-in-the-walls story has just as much to do with Strange Color as it does with The Grudge or Nosferatu or the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Normally, it would feel like a kind of insult to review a film only through means of comparisons like this, but the nature of The Canal calls for it. It’s the story of film & horror as a genre just as much as it is the story of a man trying to solve the supernatural mystery of his wife’s murder. The impressive part is how it balances both narratives so well, one never overpowering the other. It works just as well as a reflection on film as a medium as it does a telling of an original, terrifying, albeit familiar ghost story.