Irish Folk Horror ‘Unwelcome’ Has An Moving Story But Not Enough Murderous Goblins – Film Review

Unwelcome opens with Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth), a couple living in London, awaiting pregnancy test results. When the result is positive, Jamie heads to the local shop to get a bottle of alcohol-free Prosecco so they can celebrate — but their celebrations are put on hold when a group of thugs follow Jamie and attack the couple in their home. After surviving the attack, Jamie and Maya escape their urban nightmare and move to a house in rural Ireland left to Jamie by his great-aunt Maeve who recently passed away. Niamh (Niamh Cusack), an old friend of Maeve’s, tells the couple about the mysterious creatures — the redcap — who live in the woods at the bottom of their garden and suggests they leave a blood offering of liver every night just like Maeve did.

The redcap are malevolent, murderous goblins who come when called to help souls in dire need of rescue, but there is always a deep price to pay — they don’t do anything for free. Maya and Jamie don’t take it seriously at first, believing it to be nothing but harmless folklore. With Maya now nine months pregnant and due any day now, the couple hires the Whelan family to repair the hole in their roof and quickly realize that they pose a threat. The father (Colm Meaney) demands Maya and Jamie call him “Daddy,” his children Aisling (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and Killian (Chris Walley) are quick to insult and often steals items from the house, while the older son Eoin (Kristian Naim) is often beaten by his father. The entire family, however, is prone to violence. 

Director Jon Wright, who hails from Northern Ireland, pitched Unwelcome as Gremlins meets Straw Dogs but ultimately described it as a home invasion creature feature. The film certainly explores themes of your family being under attack and feeling unsafe in your own home. For Maya and Jamie, they were under threat by the thugs in London and now by the Whelan family in Ireland and possibly by murderous goblins. It’s easy to relate to the character’s plight. Screenwriter Mark Stay said the best creature feature movies “always have a human, heartfelt element to them and an emotive story at their centre. If you took the horror element out, you would still have a compelling and watchable story that the audience can engage with.” He added that the creatures within a creature feature often reflect back a warped version of the audience and “represent a dark shadowy side of ourselves as humans” and the potential for violence within us all. 

Wright and Stay both grew up hearing Irish stories and mythologies and were keen to explore these legends cinematically. They researched Celtic myths, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen fairytales. Wright and his VFX team, led by supervisor Paddy Eason, were determined to not create a computer-generated version of the redcaps and wanted to bring them to life as much as possible with filmed material. They were achieved by using average-sized actors and stunt performers with prosthetic goblin heads, which they made smaller with a simple camera technique, then they used motion capture sessions to create their facial expressions. The weird, menacing, childlike voices were created by Rick Warden and performed by him, Paul Warren, and Ania Marson. 

There is an emotive family story at the centre of Unwelcome. The film is humorous, but you can still feel the stress of Maya and Jamie’s bad luck and their desire for a home that is truly safe. There is a subtle undertone of the trauma these characters have experienced and how it affects them. The film’s pacing is a little off, with lots of scenes feeling slightly irrelevant and pointless, though their purpose is to reveal information about the characters. The film is exceptionally well-made, and the mise-en-scene is beautiful, especially the set design and Hamish Doyne-Ditmas’ cinematography (director of photography for Murder on the Orient Express and Wonder Woman 1984), but it feels a little boring at times because we spend so long waiting for the promise of the murderous goblins that we don’t realize the main antagonists are the Whelans.

Unwelcome highlights humans’ violent tendencies more than it does any monstrous creatures, which is a strong thematic choice. Additionally, it delivers gory and bloody fun, but there isn’t enough of it.

Unwelcome was released in the UK on 27th January and is coming to select US cinemas on 8th March and digital on 14th March.

by Toni Stanger

Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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