In the 2013 anthology Viewpoint: Theoretic Perspectives on Irish Visual Texts, Emma Radley considers the rejection of the Irish horror film from the discourse of Irish cinema as representative of the exclusivity of the field.
In doing so, Radley challenges the role of Irish film critics in determining the nation’s visual persona as formulated by academics’ choices in defining the Irish film industry—and, conversely, by which films are left out. The reason for Irish horror films’ rejection from the canon, she contends, is its generic form: they are often cheap and easy-to-make break-out films for new directors, and the genre is notoriously reliant on convention, aiming to engage an audience for profit rather than as a genre of aesthetic or narrative expression.
The Irish horror film’s surfacing in the 2000’s, late in the Celtic Tiger years and following the 2008 crash and consequent recession, signifies for Radley more than the genre’s ability to capture and express ideological anxiety or fear of the nation. Underlying the rejection of these Irish horror films from the national canon is the ideology of academic discourse around the topic of national cinema since the inception of Irish film studies in the late 1980’s. The work of these early critics was to establish and legitimise a body of Irish texts and an indigenous film industry that controlled its own production of images of Ireland and Irishness, rather than an outsider’s consideration of such (e.g. Hollywood, British cinema, etc.). In promoting a national ideology of an Irish uniqueness and locality, Radley maintains that this presupposes a rejection of everything considered generic, conventional, or even globalised: the anxiety around establishing and maintaining a specific, exclusive national identity “is projected onto the ‘foreign’ as a neo-colonial force, as contaminating and corrupting agent that mutates and inhibits a truly national expression, and as a homogenising impulse that empties Irishness of its cultural specificity” (115).
Therefore, within the academic field of Irish cinema, the rejection of certain films (e.g. horror) from scholarly discourse demonstrates its “abjection or repression of ‘other’ signifying codes that would disturb or disrupt its established meaningful surface” (116). Radley utilises the semiotic discourse of Julia Kristeva to unpack how this polarity of Irish cinematic discourse depends on “the abjected other” in order to legitimise itself; through Kristeva, Radley reads a possibility for transformation of the engagement of “Irishness” in which the generic becomes radical, rather than reactionary, because of its rejection from Irish cinematic discourse as “other” to an essentialist, exclusive ideology of Irishness. Instead of delimiting Irish horror as a genre which is exploitative of cultural-specific fears and anxieties, Radley identifies its position as privileged, free to utilise such unfiltered access to the anxieties caused by shifting social and cultural structures since the Celtic Tiger and its influence on demographics, religion, society, etc., which she argues has led to a crisis of Irishness.
In reviewing the premiere of Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal (2014), Ciara Barrett qualifies her reading of the film as being a product of a decade of “proliferation” of Irish horror films with a “pulp-postmodern sensibility and aesthetic by generic convention” (282). She argues that Kavanagh’s film “may be seen as marking a departure from this pulp-Irish cycle as a Serious Horror that conceals, rather than reveals, its Irish location (in both geographic and psychological-indentificatory senses) towards an overall project of dislocation and disorientation” (282). While this assertion neglects a considerable number of what are also arguably “serious” Irish horror films, The Canal’s concealment of its Irishness (to use Barrett’s phrasing) hits on the point at which the film most compellingly intersects with Radley’s reading of the Irish horror film, in its interrogation of the film medium itself.
The premise of The Canal is, in fact, arguably conventional from a generic perspective: a young, expecting couple moves into an old house, which is eventually revealed to have its own dark past as the site of several early twentieth-century murders. The husband, David Williams (Rupert Evans), discovers this macabre history at his workplace in the National Archives—the only confirming feature of its Dublin locality—five years after the couple moves in. David’s discovery of the 1902 police footage of the house is concurrent with his uncovering of his wife’s infidelity, yet the specific catalyst for his mental decline remains indefinite, as does the exact circumstances of his wife, Alice’s (Hannah Hoekstra), murder. David, convinced that it is an evil spirit that haunts the house and killed Alice, sets out to find proof of the sinister forces through the use of cameras. At the climax of the film, he is eventually forced to recognise that he murdered her himself, yet it remains unanswered as to whether he invented the murderous spirit to assuage his own guilt, or if sinister forces propelled his murderous revenge against his adulterous wife.
With echoes of The Shining (1980) or The Amityville Horror (1979) as a psychological-thriller in which a husband is fatally corrupted by the supernatural forces of a menacing past that have been subsumed by the psyche of a building, The Canal ultimately resists lapsing into a predictable rehashing of Jack Torrance’s fate at the point it is most self-reflexive: in the words of Emma Radley, “by way of its formal construction, its ‘violent awareness of itself’ as a textual construction, the contemporary horror film is always already a vehicle of transposition”. David’s job at the National Archives does more than provide the logical means by which he gains access to the 1902 police footage when his obsession with filmic proof of the evil spirit correlates with his psychological deterioration: this simultaneously questions both the veracity of David’s subjectivity and the reliability of the film medium itself.
The film’s preoccupation with film medium is multifaceted, operating within the diegesis as the archival film reels, an old camera apparatus, David’s personal digital camera, and even in a Skype video call, in addition to the cinematography of the film text. Ultimately, as Barrett also notes, “thematically, and in the context of its generic and national filmic heritage, The Canal is concerned with slippage and the dissolution of borders” (282). In a similar vein, Cecilia Sayad’s argues that the found-footage horror film “playfully collapses the boundaries separating the depicted universe from reality, and by extension challenges the ontological status of the fiction film as self-contained object” (45). Although The Canal is not a found-footage horror, it is significant that the 1902 police footage initially operates within the narrative as evidence for David (and, by extension, the audience) that is legitimised by its antiquity, its status as actual footage from a police-investigated crime scene, and its possession by the National Archives.
Technically, the 1902 footage was created by Kavanagh and cinematographer Piers McGrail by filming low-speed with black and white 35mm stock in an antique camera from 1915, which provides a visual distinction from the cinematography of the contemporary narrative. This same camera apparatus is utilised by David in the latter half of the film when he acquires it from the archives and realises, that unlike his digital camera, it can capture the sinister ghosts he sees in his house and on the canal. A sequence which features the brightening flash bulb, a silhouetted spinning film reel, and the film strip speeding through the projector establishes David’s viewing of the footage in the Archives theatre. Significantly, such shots of the camera and projector apparatuses throughout The Canal are framed in extreme close-ups, shown in automation without human intervention, and these synchronous mechanical sounds are at a higher decibel than the rest of the diegetic sound in the film. Often cut to suddenly, these camera sequences are nearly as startling as the unexpected appearance of the phantoms.
David’s experiments of filming himself in the mirror with the old camera reveals William Jackson’s phantom close by, and in the footage that he has filmed in the house, Jackson’s phantom seems to move around the halls and stand in the rooms. As David’s examination of the film strip itself seems to reveal no evidence, it implies that the evil spirit is manifested only in the operating camera apparatus—or in the act of watching it. When David subsequently sees a ghostly shadow in the canal, he films the apparition: the more he cranks the camera, the louder the distressed voice of the ghost becomes as it moves closer, but he keeps his eyes firmly shut. It is in in this way that the camera apparatus serves as the intermediary between David and his crime as he relies on the camera eye to capture the truth while he himself refuses to look.
Ultimately, David’s attempts to utilise the film medium to validate the presence of a sinister, historic presence in his house, which would presuppose David’s psychological deterioration and redeem his murderous behaviour, fail at every level. Not only is he unable to prove the existence of this ghost when interrogating the nanny or his son, but he murders his co-worker when she denies seeing anything uncanny in the old film footage. Furthermore, his psychosis appears to completely subsume the cinematographic process into his psyche: when he is evading capture by the police by taking his son into the sewers of the haunted canal, the maze-like passageways become the projections on which he sees the “real” memories—the realisation of the murders he has committed as an out-of-body experience—which sporadically flash to black and white.
Nevertheless, within a film that questions both its own narrative and textual veracity, it is remains unresolved whether or not these apparitions are proof of sinister influences within the diegesis or rather the persistence of David’s disturbed imagination that continues to assuage guilt by visualising evil spirits. As Ciara Barrett writes, “In this case, The Canal departs neither from broad generic convention nor from Irish-horror narrative tradition . . . It is postmodern, for sure, as borne out in its self-reflexive references to filmmaking, viewership, and the (re)construction of narrative, but it is never pulpy” (283). In simultaneously utilising generic convention and resisting it, The Canal’s strongest point is at which it also most fully embodies the potential of a “vehicle of transposition,” as Radley contends (112), through its persistent incredulity of any film text, including itself.
Cait Harrigan is a research PhD candidate in the School of English, Media, and Theatre Studies at Maynooth University. Her own research investigates the critical implications of humour and the comic in post-Celtic Tiger Irish cinema. She received her M.Phil. in Irish Writing from Trinity College Dublin, and her B.A. in English from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.