By Thomas Puhr.
A well-crafted genre exercise…[that] ultimately offers mere glimpses of what made The Canal so strange and surprising.
One of the great joys of our streaming era is the discovery – usually after scrolling through dozens of bottom drawer B-movies – of an overlooked horror film: one that is not just good (a feat in itself), but exceptional. Such was my first encounter with Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal (2014), which blindsided me when I popped it on as background noise a few years ago only to find myself genuinely disturbed by its disorienting visuals and sound effects. The Irish writer-director’s take on the haunted house subgenre got under my skin without relying on easy jump-scares. Here was a film which delivered both an arthouse aesthetic and real chills.
I was excited, then, to hear Kavanagh has returned to horror with Son (2021) after his brief foray into the Western with 2019’s Never Grow Old. The film arrives on Shudder with little fanfare (its first trailer went live just a few weeks ago), but I held out hope that this quiet release strategy was indicative of another under-the-radar knockout. These hopes were neither met (I’ll admit they may have been unrealistically high) nor dashed; Son is a well-crafted genre exercise – it’s a few solid steps above most horror movies dumped on streaming services every few weeks – but ultimately offers mere glimpses of what made The Canal so strange and surprising.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of car headlights struggling to pierce through a foggy road. A radio preacher’s distorted voice rails against evil, and a low, machine-like noise rumbles – almost imperceptibly – on the soundtrack. The driver, Laura (Andi Matichak, of David Gordon Green’s Halloween, 2018), flees two mysterious men before giving birth on the side of a highway. “I don’t want you!” she repeatedly screams during her delivery. It’s a painful sequence, one made all the more jarring by an abrupt cut to some ten years later: Laura and her now-grown son, David (Luke David Blumm), have a loving relationship and seem perfectly content with their small-town existence.
Of course, it’s not long before things go south. One night, Laura opens David’s bedroom door to find a group of strangers performing a ritual around her sleeping child. She runs outside to get help from a neighbor, but the cabal has vanished without a trace upon her return. The authorities don’t believe her (is she sure she wasn’t just dreaming?), and David seems just fine. The only one who can tell something isn’t right is Paul (an underused Emile Hirsch), a young detective assigned to the case. His suspicions are confirmed when David is later rushed to the hospital with a debilitating, unexplainable illness.
This first act – a surreal riff on the home-invasion thriller – is the film’s strongest. Matichak and Blumm play off each other quite well as the distraught mother and suffering son, and a burgeoning romance between Laura and Paul is nicely handled without becoming melodramatic. However, when Laura and David flee town (those mysterious men reappear outside of the hospital), the narrative morphs into a supernatural, episodic road movie (think of a gnarlier version of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special, 2016). It’s around this point that Kavanagh starts answering questions which don’t really need answering.
I’ll reveal nothing else, though many viewers will see the twist (and even the twist to the twist) coming from a mile away. Said revelations are not just predictable; they’re illogical. Like countless gotchas in genre films, these moments don’t mesh seamlessly with the events preceding them. When we learn who certain characters really are, their earlier actions and lines make no sense because they were done and said merely to mislead us.
Although Kavanagh’s grip on narrative cohesion slips once Laura and David take to the road, his and cinematographer Piers McGrail’s carefully-framed compositions impress throughout. A shot of a rundown motel – its purple and blue lights shimmering in dark rain puddles and contrasting with a neon cross perched atop a nearby steel mill – slyly illustrates an underlying commentary on how deeply embedded religious fanaticism is in the U.S. Images like that of the motel or of the foggy highway unsettle far more than the grisly, special effects-laden sequences surrounding them.
I keep thinking of an early scene in which Paul visits a psychiatric hospital where Laura stayed as a teenager. “Are there patients here?” he asks, realizing with surprise that the building is dead silent. “People always expect screaming, but the patients here are quiet mostly,” the receptionist explains, adding: “I find that scarier, don’t you?” This self-aware exchange – which reimagines the overdone “visit to the insane asylum for background information” scene – points to Kavanagh’s understanding that restraint is just as essential to horror as bombast. Son’s subtler touches are top notch, but this filmmaker should have followed his own character’s advice a bit more carefully.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.