When I chose these two films to watch, mostly at random, I didn’t expect there to be so many similarities between them! It’s almost creepy to think about, unless you consider that contemporary haunted house horror films share a lot of the same genetics. Both The Pact and The Canal try to do something new with the haunted house trope, with varying levels of success.
The Pact is the story of Annie, who, after her estranged mother’s death, is cajoled by her older sister to come back home for her mother’s funeral. When she arrives in town, however, she finds her sister has disappeared, leaving her young daughter behind. Annie must figure out the truth about what happened to her sister, and what’s behind the spooky happenings in the house, both of which might be related to Annie and her sister’s harshly abusive upbringing at the hands of their mother.
The Canal is also about a haunted house, but with a much more brutal relationship to the ghosts of the past. David, his wife, and his young son all live happily in a Victorian house by a canal, until David has some suspicions and finds out his wife is cheating on him, and planning to leave him. That same night, his wife is found murdered, her body surfacing in the canal. All signs point to David, but he insists that murderous ghosts in the house have something to do with her murder.
Both films rely on technology to help the characters figure out their relationship with the ghosts – Annie gets a mysterious text with an unknown address, and when she looks it up on Google Maps, she sees the above ghost; while David, a film preservationist by trade, films the house and the canal with a turn-of-the-century camera he believes can capture the ghosts. Both films even have video calls with ghosts in them!
David’s obsession with film, and what it can show him about things that he cannot see with the naked eye (or cannot prove exist to others) reminded me of one of our all-time favorite films, Arrebato– David even holds up his film to the light to try to prove he’s right, in a seeming homage to one of Arrebato‘s most enduring images. The appearance of ghosts after you see David’s film is also reminiscent of The Ring, and The Canal shares that film’s obsession with seeing that which we are most afraid of.
The similarities continue: both films are set at/around Christmas, and characters peeping through holes in the walls and hiding in secret passageways within the house are recurring themes in both. It’s the third-act reveals that separates the good from the mediocre. The Pact finds real heart and redemption in its finale (even as it switches from a haunted house film to more of a slasher thriller), while The Canal is brutal (particularly against women) until the very end. Whereas The Canal director Ivan Kavanagh might have thought he was being shocking, instead it’s just a needlessly depressing parade of horrors, one after the other.
The performances also differentiate the films: The Pact stars Caity Lotz, who I was happy to see, as she’s one of my favorite recurring actors on Mad Men, who brings a tough vulnerability to Annie. This is a woman who has been through a horrifically abusive childhood, yet has the strength to come back to the former house of horrors and solve her family’s ghastly secrets. The Canal, on the other hand, stars Rupert Evans in a relatively thankless role as David. He’s never a nice guy, he has violent fantasies about killing his cheating wife, and is basically threatening and/or frightening to every woman in the film. There’s no one to cheer for, even if we think that David is being falsely accused. At the end of the day, I’ll always take the woman with heart over the man who is filled with impotent rage.