Professor of Psychology G Neil Martin gives a neglected Welsh horror-comedy a thorough re-appraisal…
A man, clearly in distress, lies on the ground. It’s dark; could be night. He’s wearing a yellow rain coat. Rain falls hard. His eyes are exopthalmic, lips tight against the onslaught of water. He’s prone, but around his wrists are coiled metal, a little – appropriately – like a shower cable. Around one wrist, the cable tightens. We see the man’s hand; a close-up of the rubber glove; then a finger as it extends, a yellow claw emerging. The next thing we see is one word, in bright yellow: “CANARIES”.
Thus opens one of the most unsung and criminally neglected Celtic – no, any – horror films of the past decade. Written, directed and produced by Peter Stray, Canaries is set among interleaving timelines, though mainly on New Year’s Eve 2015, telling the darkly comic story of Steve Dennis (Craig Russell), a London DJ returning to his home town of Lower Cwmtwrch in South Wales to celebrate the new year with a motley collection of old friends and ex-girlfriends. At least, that is the window-dressing.
Underneath this quotidian McGuffin, however, is a mad alien conspiracy involving the disappearance of four yellow-sou’westered American fishermen, the baffling arrival of zombie-eyed humanoids with talons and yellow raincoats (the titular “canaries”), some time-travel, and the involvement of the US Department of Defense. The latter has been keeping a close eye via satellite on the shenanigans unfolding in South Wales since it received a photograph of our heroes from the upcoming New Year’s Eve party sent via a phone that doesn’t yet exist. Much of the film is a house-under-siege setup where our heroes do battle with the creatures and their Krueger-like Marigolds.
It’s ambitious – filmed across locations in Wales (principally), London, Vietnam and Martha’s Vineyard – extremely funny, cleverly and beautifully shot, well-scored by Marengast, and turns in some sharply deadpan performances.
One of the revelations is relative newcomer Russell, who has a gift for comic timing and reaction shots. For example, the film properly opens with him attempting to surreptitiously leave the morning-after bed of his weary one-night-stand (Hannah Daniel). Finding he’s been caught out, he earnestly deadpans a homily of regret – actually a line from The Terminator, which she sarcastically recognises – and subsequently clatters apologetically out of the flat in his pants. In less subtle and sympathetic hands the character would come across as tiresome and boorish, but Russell elevates him to someone who is, if not likeable, at least aware of his foibles.
Supporting our Dai Juan of the Valleys is a cast that includes veterans Robert Pugh, playing a laconic, menacing ex-copper pub landlord, and Kai Owen as a MOD boss. The principal ensemble also features comic actor Steve Meo as Huw – whose personality can be succinctly distilled by his sweatshirt featuring a turd emoji – Sheena Battessa and Richard Mylan as London-based siblings Sunita and Nav, as well as Aled Pugh and Marc Rhys as gay couple Ryan and Tommy. The resentment/tension between Huw and Nav is deftly done: Huw, at one point, says of Nav, “Ooh, look at me, with my red wine and my long words!” and later “Ooh, look at me! I’ve got nice hair and my sister’s fit!”, whilst on the other side of the Atlantic the accomplished Rob Robinson plays defence section head Kendrick.
The film sparkles with some clever and – occasionally – bravely understated visual gags. In an early DoD scene one of the team inquires incredulously that they must have a big screen with a map, or a big map they can put pins in. The film then cuts to a table with a tablet showing a map with six sweets sitting on top like makeshift pins, identifying the locations of interest. Similarly in a later party scene Ryan holds a plastic cup with a slice of kiwi fruit clinging onto the lip like a Poundland cocktail. No one mentions it, making it humorously incongruent and intelligently shot, director Stray allowing us to notice it without signposting via the script.
Some lines of dialogue sing in the key of bizarre. When talking to another house member, the camera cuts to Steve saying “I’ve been working on a series of adventure novels about a DJ explorer” and is cut off before he can go further. When one of the canaries is found dead on the roof of the house, Nev remarks “What the fuck is going on in Wales? Is this normal?”
The film is also not without cultural or social conscience. In an exchange between Nav (English, of Indian heritage) and Steve – where Steve’s evaporated Welsh accent comes up in conversation (“No London station wants a DJ sounding like that now, do they?”) – Nav says “I grew up sounding like my mum. I just got picked on. Knobs doing impressions of me. Sounded more Welsh than Indian. I changed the way I spoke to fit in.” By playing this moment straight it’s a touching beat amid the melee of murders.
This tonal shift, and the deftness with which it’s accomplished, is characteristic of the film. Reece Shearsmith in his essay Gothic And The Dark Art Of Film argues that when you produce comic horror, you must take the horror part deadly seriously. The comic element provides a release from the terror. Canaries follows this blueprint to the letter: the horror, even when you appreciate the ridiculousness of the milieu, is played as horror and doesn’t skimp on either the gore nor the verisimilitude.
The film had its world premiere at a very rowdy late-night screening at FrighFest 2017. At the time, it seemed as if it would put Welsh horror on the map. Although being a country rich in myth and legend – druids, Merlin, St David, Mari Llwyd – very little Welsh horror cinema exists and you’ll rarely, if ever, find Wales listed in the index of any of the Pantagruelian encyclopaedias of horror film. There is The Lighthouse (2016), and more recently The Toll (2021), and Welsh-language and BFI First Feature Competition nominee Y Gwledd (2021), but not much else. The dearth exists against a historical backdrop where Wales did once play a significant – or baffling – role in the early years of cinema. Universal’s Wales, for example, was very much blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: The Wolf-Man (1941), Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1943) and The Old Dark House (1932) were all filmed primarily in a fictional Wales. The first was set in “Llanwelly”, the second in Cardiff, whilst The Old Dark House’s Femm family’s ancestral home was also in Wales. Boris Karloff, hirsute and animalistic, answers the door to stranded travellers battling with a broken down car and oragious weather, with a string of noises which elicits the response from one of the door-knockers: “Even Welsh ought not to sound like that”.
The end of Canaries promises us more, with a teasing “to be continued” appearing at the close. It’s been four years, but wouldn’t it be nice to re-open this aviary and see its charges fly again?
G Neil Martin
Neil is a Professor of Psychology and writer. Find him on Twitter as @thatneilmartin. CANARIES is available on DVD and VOD