The Plot: Following a violent home invasion in London, Jamie (Douglas Booth) and his pregnant wife Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) move to the idyllic Irish countryside in the hope of living a quiet life. Jamie has inherited an old house from his late aunt, but it comes with a strange request from local Maeve (Niamh Cusack). They’re to leave a blood offering / piece of liver at the end of the garden each day for the little people or red caps that inhabit the woods beyond a sturdy wooden door. Bemused, they go along with this quirky request. While undergoing renovations, the couple come into conflict with dodgy builder Whelan (Colm Meaney) and his equally dodgy offspring who work for him. This stirs up the red caps – friends or foe?
The Verdict: Having made the memorably hilarious Grabbers, Belfast-born but England-based director Jon Wright returns to Ireland for another blood-soaked offering with dark fairytale horror Unwelcome. Well, sort of. The fields on the screen aren’t quite green enough to be Ireland, despite what one of the main characters says early on. It was actually shot in the UK but otherwise this is a film steeped in Irish folklore, with a decent Irish cast and convincing production design including an old telephone box in the Irish village that this unwary English couple move to. Seeking some solace after an assault, they just want to live in peace and raise their impending child. The insistent early warning about making a blood offering for the little people who live at the end of the garden isn’t enough to warn them off. They have more pressing concerns like getting their house in order and trying to handle difficult builder Whelan, who likes to be called Daddy and frequently reminds the couple about this. Run away quick… or perhaps not.
Co-written by Wright and Mark Stay, Unwelcome’s core attraction here is placing the couple one serious event away from a nervous breakdown, throwing in confrontational supporting characters and then seeing where it all goes icky when, yes, dagger-wielding goblins who dip their caps in blood come into the fray. These are not the cuddly goblins of Labyrinth and neither do they have a goblin king, though they do have someone, some thing lurking in the shadows… Horror films have recently been tapping into Irish mythology and the darkness in the woods waiting to creep into the outer world. You Are Not My Mother, for example, played around with the idea of changelings and the dark side of fairy folk. Unwelcome picks up the bloody baton here, being an equally dark fairytale but with a modern sensibility about urban and rural violence and how to confront them in both a natural and supernatural way.
Thankfully, Wright forgoes the paddywhackery and any snickering about the red caps by keeping them in the shadows for most of the film and taking them seriously as a threat to be reckoned with. There are laughs here, but the red caps are used more along the line of brief comic relief after a dramatic scene. Their entry is a bit late into the story, but Wright uses them quite effectively through old-school cinematic trickery and clever creature design that is mysterious enough not to spell it all out to an audience. He also builds up a tense atmosphere, heightened by blood-red skies and a domestic environment on the verge of being invaded by another, much older, one. There’s also an interesting narrative going on about Jamie needing to man up like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, while the striking-looking Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One) is a force of nature throughout. Colm Meaney also shines as a right piece of work, but with a giddy twinkle of deadly, oh-Jaysus, seriousness in his eyes.
As is often the case with horror films, it all goes off the rails in the last few minutes as Wright goes for full demented… but it’s hard not to suppress a knowing grin that this is what he and his production team meant all along. Unwelcome is a bit patchy in spots and takes a little too long to get going, but it’s still an eerily effective and well-made blood offering for the horror hungry out there.
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Eerily effective
Directed by Jon Wright.
Starring Douglas Booth, Hannah John-Kamen, Colm Meaney, Niamh Cusack, Kristian Nairn, Lalor Roddy.