“Who wants to see ghosts?” a cinema archivist asks a theater full of restless kids in “The Canal,” making a clever pitch to convince those who’ve never watched anything before the dawn of sound or color to give silent pics a try: It’s the best way to see dead people. Little does the mild-mannered film buff realize, however, that the next reel to pass through his hands will plunge him into a ghost story of his own, an unnerving but not terribly original nor especially commercial Irish chiller that blends Edwardian-era intrigue with more recent J-horror tricks. Following a busy 2014 festival run, the Orchard release opened Oct. 10 Stateside.
Injecting explicit imagery into an old-fashioned possession story, writer-director Ivan Kavanagh brandishes his unusual mix of styles right from the beginning. No sooner has David Williams (Rupert Evans, handsome but bland) introduced the aforementioned film screening than “The Canal” launches into a quick-cut archival footage montage, not unlike the one seen in “The Ring” — though it’s clearly not the movie he’d planned to show the kids, setting the tone with appetite-endangering imagery of naked corpses, exposed entrails and an eyeball being probed.
Flash forward five years: David and his wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra), are living in a century-old house in Dublin. His job as a film archivist typically isn’t all that exciting (one of Alice’s colleagues dismisses him as a “librarian”), until a box of old crime-scene film strips lands on his desk. Among them are a few reels from 1902 that depict a woman’s body being hauled from the canal that runs alongside David’s home. To his considerable shock, David realizes that the murder actually took place at the address where he lives now.
While there’s nothing to suggest that watching the footage triggers any form of possession, David senses that some malignant spirit is haunting the new family home and begins to behave strangely. Digging into the circumstances behind the crime, he learns that the killer was driven insane by suspicions of his wife’s infidelity — a discovery that coincides with the unsettling revelation that Alice has been cheating on him with a professional contact (Carl Shaaban). David actually walks in on the two of them having sex, after which the rest of his evening is a delirious but rather damning blur.
The cops are right to suspect David when he shows up to file a missing-persons report, and as the film progresses, we grow increasingly skeptical that the archivist— whom we’ve witnessed pass out in Dublin’s most disgusting public toilet after communing with some sort of demonic figure — is as innocent as he insists. The important thing is that David himself believes he’s being framed. While Evans struggles to convey his mental turmoil, the desperate character resorts to using an old hand-cranked camera and other tricks (such as spreading flour on the floorboards) to document the ghostly apparitions around his house.
With overt references to Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People” and a clear appreciation for the atmospheric creepiness of other early horror classics, Kavanagh proceeds to escalate the tension, putting David’s young son Billy (Calum Heath), trusting nanny Sophie (Kelly Byrne) and over-concerned co-worker Claire (Antonia Campbell Hughes) in potential danger of whatever’s lurking around his home. Meanwhile, the hallucinations become more frequent, to the extent that we can’t always discern where reality ends and fantasy begins.
But Kavanagh hardly sees fit to rely on old-school techniques to generate suspense, amping up the tension via jump cuts, red-lit interiors and a meticulously engineered soundscape that makes sparing yet effective use of eerie tones and spine-tingling scratching noises (even to accompany the old silent footage). After shrewdly raising the possibility that something otherworldly is lurking behind the walls and beneath the manhole cover in David’s backyard, the camera finally descends into the sewer, crossing over from the old-fashioned realm of suggestion-driven horror to the far more explicit territory of directors like Takashi Miike (who surely would approve). The pic’s early coyness offers little preparation for its twisted climax, in which this subterranean tunnel of death doubles as a perverse birth canal of sorts — an image that won’t die anytime soon in the minds of any who witness it.