Let’s Scare Bryan to Death: Ivan Kavanagh’s THE CANAL with Christine Makepeace

Welcome back to a new Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re taking a trip to the Emerald Isle. But don’t expect a light romp along Ireland’s coast or in its lush forests. Instead, we’re navigating the bleak landscape of repressed male aggression in Ivan Kavanagh’s dread-soaked film, The channel. Our guide this month is Christine Makepeace, a horror author whose latest book of short stories, The sound of breaking glass, dives into themes like “loss of self, isolation, and the soul-shredding machine that is capitalism.” She is also a co-host of The female critic and serves as consulting editor for forgotten certificate. So, you could say that he knows a thing or two about horror and movies.

Released in 2014, The channel I actually managed to fly way under my radar, so I went in knowing very little beyond the basic IMDb synopsis: A film archivist finds his sanity crumbling after he is given an old reel of 16mm film with footage from a horrific murder that occurred in the early 20th century.

What’s interesting about the movie is that said archivist, David (Rupert Evans), is clearly in trouble long before he watches the aforementioned movie. His marriage to Alice (Hannah Hoekstra) is deteriorating as the pair seem to be making moves, both with each other and in their interactions with their young son Billy (Calum Heath). Unable to come clean with Alice about his fears that she is cheating on him, his reality begins to unravel after he sees archived police footage of a murder that took place in the family home in the early 20th century. After following Alice and confirming that she is sleeping with someone else, he passes out in a nearby public bathroom, waking up the next day to find her missing. When the police discover her body in a nearby canal, David becomes the prime suspect. But he is certain that his death is related to the visions he has been having in the archive footage he sees, and becomes obsessed with catching the supernatural culprit. (Here is your standard spoiler alertas I’m sure we’ll go into detail about the nature of that culprit later).

Now Christine, I totally missed this one when it was released. Do you remember how you found out and when you first saw it?

I don’t really remember the details, but I definitely saw this one shortly after it was released. His synopsis hooked me: I love movies about cinema and cinematography, and The channel he approaches it in a unique way. I’m also a big fan of European horror, so this ticked a lot of boxes for me.

One of the first things I noticed in this movie is that he’s very unhappy, and I mean that in a very specific way. Obviously, we are talking about horror, but the unhappiness goes further. I was struck by the discomfort I felt almost immediately about David and Alice’s relationship. From forced conversations to a brief sex scene almost completely devoid of joy, I felt this sense of being stuck together with the characters. Did you have a similar reaction?

I definitely hadn’t seen this one in a long time, and there was a moment of blinding panic where I thought, ‘Am I going to hate this?’ Because David is so deeply unpleasant. What struck me about this surveillance is his sense of ownership over Alice. Since the jump his jealousy is the only motivator for him. It’s hard to watch someone self-destruct.

I like how you call this movie “unhappy”, because it starts with David and pregnant Alice buying a new house. It sets us up by showing what should be the start of life for the young family, only to move on to miserable reality. I think that makes David’s spiral even harder to digest; it’s a bit too relatable.

That opening scene is so intriguing because it gives a brief glimpse that the house is haunted, so we know something is going on there. But then with that five-year jump, it leaves a lot to the imagination about what’s been going on in the intervening years. Has the house been infecting David’s mind? Have his own inner demons manifested the “spell” of him? What is his reading of the situation?

I don’t know if I have a hard and fast view of what’s really going on. I think it works either way, which is awesome. Many stories do not withstand multiple interpretations, but I find The channel does. There could be no malevolent forces, and David could simply be a jealous man who gradually grew tired of his domestic life. He could be a guy driven mad by his wife’s lies and indiscretions. I mean, we don’t even know which came first, his infidelity or his wild possessiveness.

So if you believe what David is seeing, did he wake up the house? Was he “infecting” them? Did it cause the couple’s life to fall apart? I think, based on the final moments of the movie, that something supernatural was going on. But even then, I can convince myself of that. Its ambiguity is one of its strengths.

There is connectivity between The channel and some of the other movies you recommended, including Honeymoon Y a dark song. These stories use somber tones and aesthetics to explore strained relationships, and I wonder if that was just a coincidence in your selections, or are you drawn to those kinds of stories?

I tend to gravitate towards smaller, more character-focused stories. It’s a good way to work things out! There is a lot of catharsis in quiet, introspective stories about grief and loss. These are things we all deal with, and I personally prefer to see them explored from a horror or speculative angle. I tend to avoid emotional drama, but if you put in a ghost, angel, or alien, I’m in.

I like characters I can chew on, and David certainly fits that description. I think what he does The channel interesting and unique is how difficult it is to extend any type of empathy to David. But at the same time, the film depends on the viewer’s willingness to stick with it. For me, intrigue keeps me engaged even when I don’t want to be. Because you’re never sure how in control David really is, and that adds to the mystery.

I agree, both that David is extremely unpleasant and that the movie still kept me hooked despite that fact. Kavanagh also doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to hide the fact that David killed Alice. Early in the first act, he dissociates and sees her murder from a third-person perspective, but you can hear her yell, “No, David!” So, it’s more about if/how David is going to find out. What do you think Kavanagh is trying to explore by framing the narrative in that way?

For me, it highlights David’s detachment from his life. It’s like he doesn’t feel in control even though he clearly does. Framing him as if he were looking at himself from afar he emphasizes that without feeling heavy. I’m not sure it’s intentional, but the way the story is told reminds me of living with an abusive person or someone in the throes of addiction. There are also themes of inherited trauma that tie it all together.

Kavanagh wrote the script and explains that he delved into his own fears in developing it. In addition to the addiction you mention above, there is a malevolence that pervades all men. David is the obvious example, but there is also the ghost who is said to have murdered his own family. There’s also Detective McNamara (Steve Oram), who seems more interested in being right about David as the perpetrator than preventing further harm. Does it seem fair to say that Kavanagh’s fear stems from the potential for men to hurt those around them?

As a viewer, you absolutely feel that way. The women in the film, of which there are many, are treated like cannon fodder. Not necessarily because of the movie itself, but definitely because of the men who inhabit the story. For me, the most egregious example is the character of Claire. [David’s work colleague, who is indicated as being romantically interested in him], played by the wonderful Antonia Campbell-Hughes. By the time she meets her fate, there is absolutely no reason for David to have involved her. He is driven by her selfish need for support, for someone to witness. The women are presented as disposable players, something that would typically lead me to turn on a movie. But in The channelit’s an integral part of the story, it’s part of the horror.

I appreciate that Kavanagh takes a different approach in his use of Ireland as a setting. Generally, filmmakers will gravitate towards the more scenic and whimsical elements of the Irish countryside, even in horror movies. But the Ireland shown in The channel It is an austere and monotonous place. Even the supernatural elements bring with them an aesthetic from the era of the Industrial Revolution. What did you think about that choice and how does it fit into the story?

I definitely look to Ireland for popular and nature-based horror. What’s interesting is that even with this unique setting, he manages to be deeply connected with nature. So even if you don’t get lost in the woods, those familiar elements are still there. I’m specifically thinking of the titular channel. It is a piece of wild and untamed nature thrown into civilization. I love the choice, though. Things look dirty and well trodden – I’m specifically thinking of those awful public toilets! There are constant reminders that we are just retracing old steps. It’s a surprisingly haunted setting.

The final act of the film does not leave much hope. David realizes his role in Alice’s death, complete with an eerie appearance of an undead Alice giving birth to the baby he didn’t know she was pregnant with. And while you think there might be at least a small silver lining when young Billy is kicked out by his grandmother, we get one last punch in the gut when David’s ghost convinces him to kill himself so the family can stay together. Can we take something away from this ending, or is it pure nihilism?

There’s definitely something in there about generational trauma and the passing on of toxic beliefs. But when David successfully encourages his son to end his life, he essentially ends the chance for any member of the family to be cured. I don’t know if there’s anything positive to extrapolate from that, but as with most horror stories, there’s definitely an opportunity to see yourself. For people coming from abuse or family conflict, it’s sometimes cathartic just to see yourself in another’s horrors.

Since this is a fairly recent movie, there’s no point in remaking it for a more modern version, but could there be a reason to take this story across the pond? Are there any interesting settings that could be made if the story took place in the United States? And it’s a pretty self-contained story, but if you were asked to do a sequel, would there be anything you’d like to explore or new angles you’d tackle?

It’s hard with something so autonomous. I think the obvious starting point would be, ‘What happens to the next residents of that house?’ And that could be a lot of fun if executed correctly. It’s a difficult balance to strike with sequels. You run the risk of retreading what has already been done, with potentially less effective results. Or as The boy and its sequel, you may lose the ambiguity or foundation that made it great. I’m also not sure what Americanizing the story would add. You could do the same thing with an old farmhouse in New England, but to what end?

The violence and paranoia in this film transcend regional and cultural specificities. David’s character could be anyone, and that’s why he’s so disturbing.

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