Unwelcome review: English couple battle Irish monsters in fun folk horror
Unwelcome is an enjoyably nasty folk horror about a city couple trying to get in touch with Mother Nature, and instead finding themselves at war with little monsters carrying big knives.
The film is part-home invasion, part-creature feature, taking inspiration from Straw Dogs, then chucking chaotic goblins reminiscent of Gremlins into the mix.
The result is a monster movie that works best when those monsters are onscreen, and taking delight in cutting, slicing, and killing their prey.
Meaning Unwelcome is weaker when focussing on the human characters, the film dealing in lazy stereotypes, and focussing on a somewhat underdeveloped central pair.
That couple is Maya (Ant-Man and the Wasp’s Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Jupiter Ascending’s Douglas Booth), who start the film living on a council estate where the threat of violence seems to be lurking around every corner.
While celebrating the news that Maya is pregnant, they become victims of a violent home invasion, the film kicking off with a scene that’s both shocking and terrifying.
They survive the attack, as does the baby, and to recover from the ordeal Maya and Jamie head for the Irish countryside, to live in a cottage left to them by Jamie’s Aunt.
The idea is to reconnect with nature in the holiday home he visited as a child. But then nature has some pretty specific demands, which the couple struggle to take seriously. At first.
“Not leprechauns exactly”
The warnings come from the type of local that folk horror demands. Friend of the family Niamh tells tales of ancient traditions revolving around fierce little people. “Not leprechauns exactly,” she explains. “Some called them the far darrig. Or the redcaps.”
Niamh suggests they follow in the footsteps of Aunt Maeve, who every evening – before sunset – would leave the redcaps a blood offering. Nothing live mind, just a sliver of liver “or some-such.” Out of respect. And to keep those monsters on the other side of their wall.
The old ways initially seem ridiculous to this very modern couple. But Maya soon finds herself drawn to the tiny entrance next to the big door in said wall, becoming fascinated with whatever lies beyond.
That’s at the end of their garden. While the couple have problems closer to home, in the shape of a cottage that’s falling apart. Against the advice of friendly locals, they enlist the services of a family of builders called the Whelans. Which is a big mistake.
The Whelans are bossed around by patriarch Colm (Layer Cake’s Colm Meany) who insists that everyone call him Daddy. And you should never trust a grown man who makes you call him Daddy.
Whelan brings with him three grown-up children – light-fingered Killian, big-mouthed Aisling, and seemingly gentle giant Eoin.
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They’re larger-than-life characters who certainly bring humor to proceedings, and are expertly played by Young Offender Chris Wallace, Derry Girl Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, and Kristian Narn, who was so memorable as Hodor in Game of Thrones.
But there’s a problem with who the Whelans are and what tired stereotypes represent. One that’s very nearly circumvented when Colm questions who is stealing from who, thereby touching on the burning resentment of an Irish people having yet more English entering their country and taking their land.
But ultimately, the thieving and work-shy cliché prevails, so rather than doing anything interesting to invert this very specific stereotype, Unwelcome only re-enforces it.
Man v Monster!
Meaning there are rising tensions inside the house; trouble that arouses the interest of the redcaps in the garden. Which is when the fun begins, in the shape of another home invasion. Only this time it’s less clear who the heroes and villains of the set-piece are.
Much like that opening sequence, director Jon Wright – working from a script he wrote with Mark Stay – doesn’t hold back when it comes to violence.
The kills are interesting, creative, and very bloody. The redcaps come at their victims from all angles. Those victims give as good as they get by using size to their advantage. And it all looks great, director of photography Hamish Doyne-Ditmas bathing proceedings in reds and greens that lend the film a dream-like quality that matches its fairytale foundations, and makes for a visually arresting finale.
The Verdict: Is Unwelcome good?
Unwelcome delivers on the promise of the premise, pitting man – and woman – against monsters to entertaining effect. While the theme of the piece – concerning what your are willing to do for family, and how far you’re prepared to go to protect them – works across the board.
Jamie isn’t particularly likeable, though that’s the point with his character, a combination of trauma and toxic masculinity making him weak and ultimately useless.
Meaning Maya is left to carry the story, crossing the threshold – both literally and metaphorically – early in proceedings, then making a series of decisions that drive the narrative forward. But while Hannah John-Kamen does her best with the character, we don’t spend enough time with Maya to truly understand the choice she makes at the end of the film. Resulting in a climax that looks good, but never quite rings true.
Unwelcome review score: 3/5
Unwelcome is a welcome addition to the folk horror cannon, with an army of memorable monsters delivering a series of equally memorable kills.
Unwelcome opens in UK and Ireland on January 27, while you can read an explanation of the monstrous redcaps here.