I love a big, nutty horror movie. Unwelcome certainly falls into that category. The first half offers a slow-burn build-up, carefully setting things in place to be paid off later on. Once the second half hits, it goes to Crazytown and never returns. An undercurrent of dark humor propels the mayhem, which becomes very bloody and gory. Pulling off something like this isn’t easy. Director Jon Wright is totally in command of the film’s tone, making sure we jump when we’re supposed to, laugh when we’re supposed to, and squirm frequently.
Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and boyfriend Jamie (Douglas Booth) are celebrating the fact that they’re finally pregnant. He walks across the street to get some non-alcoholic champagne and ends up in an altercation with a small group of thugs, who follow him home and beat both of them up. After that trauma, the couple jumps at the chance to move from London to rural Ireland after he inherits an old house from a deceased aunt. In the backyard is a stone wall with a wooden door and a deep stretch of forest behind it. A local woman stresses to them how important it is to follow an old custom of leaving a small piece of liver or meat for the goblins known as “Redcaps” who supposedly dwell in that forest. This blood offering, she says, absolutely must be done daily, without fail. Neither Maya nor Jamie believe that, yet both agree to be diligent simply to keep the peace.
Meanwhile, the house needs repairs. The only person available to do it is Whelan (Colm Meaney), a guy who insists on being called “Daddy” and has three surly adult children working for him. Jamie has a tendency to clash with them, and when one goes missing, tensions flame exponentially. Telling you how this plot thread ties into the idea of Redcaps wouldn’t be fair. Rest assured, the movie brings its elements together in a manner that offers one shocking development after another.
Unwelcome has two things going on simultaneously. At one level, it’s about how Maya and Jamie go from traumatic incident to traumatic event. At another, it’s a dark cultural myth dealing with Irish traditions and creatures. What’s ingenious about the screenplay is how it melds those levels. The allegiance of the Redcaps helps drive the suspense in the “Maya and Jamie vs. the Whelans” arc. They’re technically in it for themselves, yet also have a stake in aligning with whomever offers them the greatest benefit. The film isn’t another generic “creatures in the woods” chiller. It uses those creatures to add a layer of complication to the plot.
All hell breaks loose in the third act. Tensions boil over, desperate measures are taken, and several people lose their lives in gruesome fashion. Each scene seems to bring with it an unanticipated development that ramps up the danger for the characters. It’s no spoiler to say the Redcaps are at their boldest in this section. Who they go after and why they go after them is part of the fun. Their self-protective malice is utilized in a delightfully off-the-wall way. I was reminded of pictures like Gremlins and Critters in how the creatures take over at the end, creating non-stop chaos.
Performances are good, with Hannah John-Kamen and Colm Meaney the standouts. Wright provides a suitably eerie atmosphere when Maya ventures into the heart of Redcap territory, and ensures the intermittent infusions of humor hit the target rather than distract from the tension. Unwelcome is just a fun horror romp, nothing more. It is fun, though, thanks to a willingness to go to increasingly wacky places, right up until the very last shot.
out of four
Unwelcome is rated R for strong violence and gore, pervasive language, some drug use, and sexual material. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.