– By Jon Larkin
‘V’ comes to the Valleys as an alien invasion inexplicably chooses a small Welsh town as its drop zone.
Right from the jump, an effective score by Marengast sets the tone for a dark, brooding thriller… but that’s not quite what we get. First up we’re treated to a montage of seemingly unconnected incidents across the globe at different points in history; a body is discovered near an army base in the UK in 1980, then a UFO-chaser rocks up in Vietnam in the 90s, before we travel to Martha’s Vineyard in 2012 to find a body washed up on the beach… so far, so serious… until suddenly we land in Lower Cwmtrwch.
Washed up radio DJ Steve Dennis (Craig Russell) is throwing a New Year’s Eve bash and has invited old flame Sunita (Sheena Bhattessa) and her brother Nav (Richard Mylan) over from the big smoke with the ulterior motive of getting Nav to fund his new venture – high end club nights in the Valleys. We meet Steve bumcrack-first as he tries to worm his way out of the awkward morning after a one night stand with Agnes (Hannah Daniel). All cheeseball one-liners and Fonzy swagger, Steve is an absolute bell-end given endearing qualities by the performance and a very witty script. His motley crew of party guests are similarly drawn ne’er do wells given a decent touch of humanity by pretty solid performances – loutish Huw (Steve Meo) and gay couple Ryan (Aled Pugh) and Tommy (Marc Rhys) rounding off the kill list. It’s pretty clear the New Year’s Eve bash isn’t going to end well… and we’re not talking hangovers and STI’s…
Spoiler alert – there are aliens on the horizon. As we flit between the Valleys and secret US Government task force headquarters we slowly start to realise the scope for ‘Canaries’ stretches way beyond South Wales. At the stroke of midnight a random Masai spear falls from the roof almost impaling one of the gang – followed swiftly by a dead body… and all hell breaks loose. Sunita reveals herself to be a member of the Ministry of Defence, and in a brief Skype session with fellow MOD man McDonald (Hollyoaks’ Kai Owen), we’re hit with buzz words like ‘aliens’ and ‘time travel’ that quickly fill us in on just what’s going on. What follows is a Shaun of the Dead-style battle to the death between our plucky heroes and the invading monsters, before a stalk and slash romp through the woods and an X-Files twist that lays on a government conspiracy and a plea for a sequel – the words TO BE CONTINUED even flash up onscreen at one point.
‘Canaries’ is damn good fun. Peter Stray’s script is witty and well-observed, its anti hero Steve carrying much of the humour in the first half of the film from the moment he tries to let a girl down gently using dialogue from The Terminator! Hints of the quality of his radio show come when we hear him calling feminists to ask their bra size and playing a game called ‘What’s your favourite hole?’ But it’s not all laddish humour. There are some nice surprises in there too.
When the proverbial hits the fan, the girls go out in search of help whilst the lads hang back. Sunita and Agnes are smart, independent and witty – which means it’s a shame when Agnes is offed early doors before she’s got chance to develop any further. Similarly the gay couple, Tommy and Ryan, are not overtly caricatured despite a My Little Pony phone-case rearing it’s pink head at one point. They take on casually homophobic Huw with aplomb and Ryan even turns out to be pretty badass, fighting off one of the aliens with a flourish of martial arts! There’s also a nice cameo from Robert Pugh as the local pub owner cum police sergeant who comes off as a hardboiled pulp cop if he’d cut his teeth in Pobol y Cwm.
As is the trouble with most low budget movies one glaring issue is that the whole place looks a bit empty. Pub owner Jenkins bemoans his pub being empty on New Year’s Eve, blaming Steve’s rival party – but then we cut to the shindig and there are NINE people there in total. It’s hard to get hung up on this with the pacey action chugging along nicely though – and the scene has been set to show that life for our gang of unlikely alien-fighters is a bit shit – so why would the party be any different?
Similarly telling are the deaths. Most rely on close-ups of alien talons and splatters of blood which highlight an evident lack of makeup FX budget. This becomes more clear when we meet the Canaries – named for their penchant for yellow raincoats which, coupled with their stick-on claws and joke shop contact lenseses makes them look a little bit like if IT’s Georgie had grown up to be an undead extra-terrestrial zombie hybrid looking to stab his way through the Valleys.
The obvious shortcomings of the actual monsters are overcome with decent comedy –Sunita fights a Canary off set to synthy 80s shcmaltz-pop, whilst another meets its end via the elusive corkscrew our urbane big city friends were trying to find earlier in the film. And dodgy DJ Steve finally gets to put his microphone to good use, garrotting a Canary with the chord.
Political commentary seeps in when Sunita makes contact with the US government only to be told they’re on their own. Post Trump and Brexit, the small band of inept Brits left out on a limb without any aid from the outside world carries an extra resonance. They’re left to fight off the multiplying yellow-macced clones in scenes reminiscent of the Hammer House of Horror episode ‘The Two Faces of Evil’. Unfortunately whilst that piece of classic television was truly scary, ‘Canaries’ isn’t.
What it lacks in genuine scares it makes up with wit, tightly-paced action, and a lot of heart. At a speedy 80 minutes, Peter Stray’s feature debut is a fun low budget treat to be enjoyed with a beer and a sense of humour.
The government conspiracy subplot promises more than it delivers, but when it sticks to the Valleys and pits likeable heroes against campy fun monsters, it does exactly what it says on the tin.