The lingering, nightmarish imagery hits you quickly in The Canal, Irish writer-director Ivan Kavanagh's excellent psychological horror film that had its world premiere over the weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. Within the first five minutes, Kavanagh introduces the film's surrealistic attitude with a bizarre montage of grainy and macabre visuals that comes across like that evil video in The Ring if it'd been edited by occultists tripping on shrooms. Jarring and unsettling, it's the perfect way to set up what's an altogether downbeat piece of first-rate cinematic dread.

With shades of Sinister and The Shining, The Canal follows David Williams (an impressive Rupert Evans), a film archivist who's married to a much more financially successful wife, Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) and the father of a dinosaur-loving, five-year-old son, Billy (Calum Heath). One day, David's colleague Claire (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) tells him that a mysterious reel of film has shown up, addressed to him—it's titled "Crime Scene," made in 1902 and shows the aftermath of a triple murder that took place in the house where David and his family currently live.

The discovery of his home's bloody past coincides with David's mounting suspicions that his wife is cheating on him, which he confirms by catching her and another guy in the act. That night, though, Alice goes missing, later to be found dead in a canal. Mere feet away from the same canal where, the morning after seeing her having sex with someone else, David woke up on the floor of a dirty, graffiti-laden bathroom, having seen what he believed to be the man in the "Crime Scene" film strangling Alice the night before.

Things get worse for David after that—much, much worse. As he begins losing his mind, Kavanagh goes all out with The Canal's horrific imagery. David sees the 1902 murder take place in his bedroom, and it's an ferociously brutal stabbing incident partly seen as an old-school film reel; he later sees a grime-covered, possibly inhuman female figure standing in the tall grass alongside the canal; figures in the film reels break the fourth wall, the-ending-of-The-Ring style; and there's a child birthing sequence that, well, just needs to be seen. Words won't do it justice here.

Hats off to Kavanagh, a veteran filmmaker with festival experience through previous movies like Our Wonderful Home (2008) and The Fading Light (2009)—he's made the best pure horror film at this year's Tribeca edition. The Canal is the kind of serious-minded, straight-to-the-jugular genre flick that's solely engineered to mess your sleeping patterns up, with no unnecessary moments of silly comic relief nor any telegraphed jump scares. It's an exercise in mood over excess, one that will hopefully land a worthy distributor and find its way into stateside theaters later this year.

Here, Kavanagh discusses The Canal's many genre influences, the importance of sound design and limitless visuals to generate scares, and the plus side of not making every viewer happy.

The Canal isn't your first horror film, correct?
I made a really low-budget horror film called Tin Can Man (2008) which is actually being released at the end of this month here in America. I made that for under 1,000 euro. I loved working on that because horror films allow you to do absolutely anything. You can push the visuals and sound design as far as you want. I just love the freedom of the genre, so I was really, really eager to get back to it. And any chance to make something about early cinema is exciting for me because I love early cinema and silent cinema.

You mentioned pushing the visuals as far as possible, and that's the first thing that really struck me about The Canal. It's a real visual assault, an endless barrage of one creepy and surreal image after another. Was that a big driving force for you—to make sure the visuals were non-stop?
Yeah, I wanted to make a really visceral experience, both in sound and imagery. I'll never forget the first time, when I was my late teens, I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the cinema. For me, that was the closest to being in a waking nightmare I'd ever been. It was just an all-out assault on the senses, and I came out dazed. It was amazing. It wasn't what I was expecting—you think Texas Chainsaw Massacre and exploitation, but it's much deeper than that. I'm not surprised that someone like Stanley Kubrick was a big fan of that film.

For me, any chance to push visuals and sounds is a no-brainer. We spent as much time on the film's sound design as we did on the picture. Working with sound is my favorite part of the process. We recorded all new sounds for the film; we didn't use any library stuff. We spent a very long time on it, and it was really a joy to work on.

Were there any musical references you and the composer had in mind? A lot of The Canal's score reminded me of The Shining.
Yeah, I'm a big fan of 20th century classical stuff, and I probably get that from films like The Shining. I studied music when I was in my teens, and I wanted to be a composer at first, but I didn't really have the talent for that. [Laughs.] I'vr always loved 20th century avant-garde music, though. I hadn't a score like that in a film in a long time, other than The Shining and Jerry Goldsmith's amazing score for Planet of the Apes. It really adds another level to it.

I'd heard [The Canal composer] Ceiri Torjussen's music, especially his concert music and liked it quite a bit. We met and realized that we had the same taste in music, and he was willing to really experiment the way I wanted him to. It's a very unusual score. I wanted the score to blend with the sound design, so you can't tell them apart sometimes. I think we did that. I'm very pleased with the way it came out.

Going back to the film's visuals, do those come into your head first and then you backtrack from there and develop the story, or do the story and characters come first and dictate the imagery?
The way I work is, I start with an initial idea. I wanted to make a film with an archivist who suspects his wife is cheating on him. It's almost like a stream-of-consciousness style of writing. I begin at the beginning of the script and work my way through it. For this film, I wanted to create a nightmare-like atmosphere throughout it, to have it remain in the main character's point-of-view as if he's stuck in a nightmare; the further the film goes on, the more and more nightmarish it becomes.

One thing we all know about nightmares is that they feel raw and uncensored, so when I was writing, I was careful not to censor myself when it came to the imagery. It just came out naturally. Sometimes when I'm writing, I surprise myself. I don't know where those images come from, really.

Which images in The Canal surprised you the most after you came up with them? To where you were like, "Wow, I came up with that? I'm sick."
[Laughs.] At the premiere, one thing that occurred to me is that there's actually very little violence in the film, but the violence that is in there, particularly the stabbing scene, I wanted to be very forceful. By making that stabbing scene so hardcore and visceral and happening so early into the film, it leaves a heavy shadow over the rest of the film, so that you don't really have to out anymore violence in after that. I think that works and unsettles people. Also, the birth scene at the end of the film—to me, that felt like the perfect nightmare image. He was literally being confronted by the awful thing he's done. This should be a joyous thing—she should be giving birth to this child but he's denied her that, and this is now the true horror of what he's done.

That birth scene really caught me off-guard. It comes so late in the film that you'd think the viewer would be conditioned to The Canal's tone and nightmarish qualities already, but when it happened, I thought, wow, this filmmaker is really going for it. It's impressive in that respect.
Birth scenes in horror films are nothing new, and I'm not sure why that is. There's an amazing and incredibly disturbing birth scene in David Cronenberg's The Fly, when she gives birth to a maggot. And that's a nightmare, too. When the birth scene happens in The Canal, hopefully we're completely inside the character David's head and psychosis, so that image felt right to me. Also, when you hear her moans, it's very mournful.

One of the things about the story I liked is it's a frightening idea that no matter how long you know someone or live with them, you'll never really know them. Evil comes from places you won't suspect it will come from. You always see these interviews with husbands who seem like lovely guys but then it turns out to be them who committed the crime. That, to me, is very frightening. That was one thing about David character—on the surface, he seems like this very normal guy, but he's capable of these awful deeds. I just wanted to hammer that home, how absolutely awful what he did was.

The Canal has a pitch-black, serious-minded tone, starting with its opening monologue all the way through to the bleak ending. A lot of horror filmmakers feel the need to insert moments of levity into otherwise bleak movies, whether it's the introduction of goofy paranormal investigators or a bumbling cop. How important was it for you to maintain the film's straight-faced bleakness throughout?
Yeah, and that's what I loved about certain films in the genre. If you're going to make a horror film, then make a horror film. Just really go for broke and make a waking nightmare, like that experience I had with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But there's maybe one or two moments of humor in The Canal, maybe with the detective.

Yeah, but they never feel gratuitous or obvious. They flow naturally into the scenes.
Thanks, that's good to hear. Also, you never know how the audiences are going to react. Different people have different reactions to the same scenes. The scene that always gets real great reactions is when Claire is trying to get David to confess right before the woman comes out of the wall. People in the screenings I've attended will be nervously laughing there and shifting in their seats, and I love that. It's such an awkward scene to watch. They're laughing because the stuff he's coming out with is completely crazy, and they also know that Claire would be wise to get out of there. [Laughs.] Because David's clearly not all there.

You said that the initial idea was about a film archivist. That's an interesting choice in a horror film—it allows you to play upon how inherently creepy old films can look and feel, similar to how old photographs of families back in the 1920s and '30s always have an element of unease to them. Much of The Canal's imagery would've been creepy enough if presented as flashbacks, but filtering them through that old film stock elevates the mood so effectively.
I've always found those things so interesting and creepy, especially the old documentary films from people like Lumière. They're not only beautiful images, with that beautiful flicker that they have, but there's something very haunting about them because you realize everyone there in those images is dead, you know? Especially crowd scenes, where you see thousands of people and you realize everyone there is long, long gone. They have a beautiful, haunting quality. That was something we tried to recreate with the old films in The Canal.

We were very eager to get the look right. It took us a very long time to do it, too. We tried every option possible, from digital to 8mm to 16mm, and then finally we found a camera from 1915. Everyone was saying that camera would never work, even the guy who owned it. [Laughs.] But when we got the footage back, it just looked amazing. It had that beautiful flicker that you can't recreate digitally, because it's film—it's so organic. And also, that film is dying out, and there's something so sad about that. So maybe for the last time, I really wanted to use 35mm film.

And you don't overuse the old film footage, which is smart. Too much of it could make it lose its creepy, somewhat alien quality. Every time it comes back, you remember how creepy it is. It's not there long enough for you to become numb to it or comfortable with it.
That's great to hear. And also, at one point, it blends with his dreams, so you're not sure where the old film ends and his dreams begin. That's something I was after and that we did during the editing process. We threw in a frame or two of color footage right in the middle of this old stuff, to give it a dreamlike quality.

The canal location itself adds to that dreamlike quality, specifically in the industrial sounds that surround it and it's subtly sinister vibe. It reminds me a bit of how David Lynch used location to that effect in Eraserhead.
Yeah, like you don't know if you're still inside the character's head or not. It's like a memory of a real location; the film is maybe colored or tainted by the character. Even the moment when David finds his wife in bed with the other guy, that's very much his point-of-view. It's meant to be that extreme and over-the-top.

Another filmmaker I really love, as well, and whom I've become an apologist of over the years is Brian De Palma. He's a bit like Dario Argento in how he uses color beautifully, especially in his early films. Argento and De Palma both have this thing where their color schemes can almost seem too over-the-top at times but it adds so much to the atmosphere of their films. Maybe we don't quite reach that level in The Canal, but I understand what they're after—it's not reality, it's something else. It's inside the protagonist's mind.

It's interesting to hear you referencing so many filmmakers and older films, because one thing that struck me about The Canal is how much it evokes so many classic horror movies and their tropes. In a way, it's trying to be the ultimate horror film. The woman-through-the-wall moment is straight out of Hideo Nakata's The Ring; David watching creepy films is a lot like Sinister; the score, like we said earlier, sounds like that of The Shining. Was that part of the plan for you, to pay tribute to older horror movies that you love or admire?
The way I saw it was, he's a film archivist, right? So these hallucinations or fantasies he's having, if that's what they are, would be colored by his job, and his job is watching films. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to reference the films I love, to make a film that at moments seems like a Dario Argento film and at other moments like a different directors' films. It seemed right for the character. The film is about cinema, in a way.

I don't usually do that referential thing in my films, but it just fit here. And a lot of them are unconscious. If you love the genre and love certain films in it, you can't help but be influenced by them. Another one we looked at a lot for this film was Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, specifically for that film's look. We use a lot of zooms and lenses that are directly influenced by Don't Look Now. We put a lot of thought into everything.

The best horror films, for me, are always divisive. Like with Argento, I don't love all of his stuff but I do love Suspiria. Films like that are so divisive—people either love them or violently hate them. That's the perfect type of film.

Speaking of which, before we started our interview, I was reading through some of The Canal's reviews so far, and, while most of them have been very positive, there were some that complained about how the film seems to be taking things directly from other films, and is more imitation than homage. Perhaps those critics didn't pick up on the "film archivist's hallucinations" angle. Were you aware, while making The Canal, that some people could see it in that negative way?
Yeah, and as I've said, too, I've never done anything like that in my other films. It just seemed perfect here because of his job. I suppose you just have to follow your instincts and just go with it. If it feels right that certain scenes resemble the look of another film, then you should do it that way. You hope, of course, that people will get what you're trying to do, but that's completely out of your control. It's nice, though, when people do get it. [Laughs.] I like that it's divisive.

One thing that no one can argue against, though, is The Canal's sense of dread. Like I said earlier, it's an aggressively bleak film, and I like how you establish that right from the very first scene, when David is speaking to the students and he says, "Everyone you're about to see are long since gone… Let's start the film." It sets up everything that's to come really well and creates this sense of inevitability. And with that, the mounting dread that comes from inevitability. There's never really a mystery of whether David's guilty or not—it's more about the experience of getting to that inevitable conclusion.
Exactly. For me, the film is really about watching him realize that he did it. Some people don't guess that, and that's fine, while others do. Maybe some people know it's him but they hope it isn't, because he is such a nice guy. That makes it for more frightening, too, that this seemingly nice guy is capable of this awful, awful deed. But for me, it's about watching, behind your fingers, this guy slowly realize that he killed his wife, who he says he loved. It wasn't about that surprise for me—it was about creating the mood and atmosphere. I wanted the film, from the moment it opened, to just drip atmosphere. That's the kind of horror film I love.

What's been really exciting so far is that, whether the reviews or reactions have been positive or negative, everyone seems to come at the film from a different angle and point-of-view, and I couldn't ask for anything more.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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