Thursday 24 September 2015


Directed by David Blair, Starring: Robert Sheehan, Lily Cole, Tamzin Merchant, David O’Hara, Joely Richardson. Supernatural Thriller, 2015, 97mins, Cert 15.

Jack (Robert Sheehan) can see - and hear - dead people. In fact you could say they’re the ones haunting him. Despite his concerted efforts to drown them out with alcohol and medication, they hound Jack, begging him to deliver final messages of comfort to their grieving loved ones. Unsurprisingly, Jack’s garbled attempts to convey the dead’s post-mortem words to the living don’t go down too well. Then Jack encounters a murdered journalist whose death hides secrets which force Jack to confront his past and his ‘gift’.

Although in essence the premise sounds like THE SIXTH SENSE, anyone approaching this film hoping for a twisty spinetingler will be disappointed. It’s a sombre, depressing film, reflecting the downward psychological spiral of its reluctant ghost- whispering protagonist. Whilst trying to appease the recently departed’s wishes he seems to just heap more misery on himself. Childhood flashbacks fill in the origins of Jack’s ‘problems’, and give his psychiatrist (Joely Richardson) a hook upon which to hang her psychological explanation for what Jack perceives as his (unwanted) burden. 

Robert Sheehan acquits himself remarkably well as Jack, a character initially hard to relate to. When Jack remarks to his brother-in-law Martin: “You never liked me”, Martin’s immediate comeback is: “What’s there to like?” Actually, I found myself warming to Jack, in part due to the (admittedly manipulative) flashbacks, but also down to the occasional raw glimpses of genuine fragility offered up by Sheehan’s committed performance. The other characters however are written and played with a coldness of touch – Jack’s sister Emma (Lily Cole) for example - and a paucity of detail ensures they largely remain detached both from Jack and the viewer.

The film condenses down into a character study of a young man who either can genuinely talk to corpses or is completely delusional. It does so by discarding several plot threads which, having initially been woven into the film’s fabric, are subsequently left dangling and discarded. The key mystery remains unsolved, and an intriguing sub-plot is introduced before being largely thrown away at the end.

THE MESSENGER is not a scary ghost film; it’s a bleak, downbeat supernatural take on the effects of grief.  Although lensed in widescreen, and despite the occasional bold visual brushstroke of swathes of grassy moorland, or a deserted airfield, the largely muted visual palette often has a TV-production vibe about it. But, despite the fact that the plot vanishes into thin air, the atmosphere conjured lingers in the memory.

 ***(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Monday 14 September 2015

THE CANAL (2014)

Directed by Ivan Kavanagh, Starring: Rupert Evans, Hannah Hoekstra, Steve Oram, Antonia Campbell-Hughes. Horror, IR, 2014, 93mins, Cert 15.

“Who wants to see some ghosts?”

Five years after moving into a creaky house backing onto a canal, film archivist David (Rupert Evans) is asked to review some old film footage donated from the local police archive. The footage, ‘Crime Scene 1902’, documents the brutal murder of a wife by her jealous husband who found out she was having an affair. The murder took place in the very same house David, his wife, and his 5 year old son now reside. A further film donation leads David to discover that the killer subsequently escaped from custody, murdered the nanny, and then drowned both the children and himself in the canal running behind the house. Back in the present, David suspects his own wife may be cheating on him...Is history about to repeat itself, and is there a ‘presence’ in the house and in the canal fuelling this possibility?

Shown as part of the Discovery strand at FrightFest 2014, writer/director Ivan Kavanagh’s psychological thriller pulls off some genuinely dread-inducing moments which call to mind certain sequences from the BBC’s M.R.James adaptations (albeit with a modern slant). It’s a shame then that the finale unfortunately drops the ball somewhat with a disappointingly mundane dénouement (followed by a nonsensical and seemingly tacked-on final twist). But there’s still much to admire up till this point.

Visually (and aurally) the film successfully evokes a palpable sense of unease, combining a series of effectively kinetic set-pieces whilst (refreshingly) resisting the temptation of the ‘jump scare’ in favour of incremental creepiness. There’s a surprisingly well orchestrated RINGU (1998) inspired sequence, and a truly nasty visceral moment in the canal drain which you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a film essentially grounded in psychological terrors.

There were times during THE CANAL when I was reminded of Steven Volk’s superb supernatural TV drama AFTERLIFE. In fact I half-suspected Lesley Sharp’s psychic ‘Alison Mundy’ and Andrew Lincoln’s sceptical academic ‘Robert Bridge’ would turn up at one point with wide-eyed Alison claiming the spirit of the wife killer was still in the house whilst Robert attempted to rationalise the spooky parallels.

Whilst there’s a spiralling grimness (no bad thing mind you) at the heart of the film, there is brief but memorable light relief in the shape of cynical detective ‘McNamara’ (a martyr to acid reflux) played with suitable drollness by SIGHTSEERS Steve Oram. With David’s wife missing, McNamara sits with him in the car and offers David the following insight: “People always suspect the husband. Do you know why that is? Cos it’s always the husband: every fucking time...”

I did chuckle to myself for questioning why David would choose to throw up in a revolting public toilet – one resembling a distant cousin of the defecate-incrusted Glaswegian bowl Ewan McGregor climbs into in TRAINSPOTTING – rather than outside in the infinitely preferable fresh air by the canal. It surely says something that I can happily swallow all manner of fanciful supernatural leaps in the dark yet somehow question a man’s choice of puke hole...?

THE CANAL churns up some decent chills, it’s smartly paced and doesn’t drag, and even if the end does meander off-stream a bit, it’s still worth a punt on.

***(out of 5*) 

Paul Worts

(First published on the FrightFest website.)