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Unwelcome (15)

Director: Jon Wright
Screenplay: Jon Wright
, Mark Stay

Starring: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Colm Meaney

Review: David Stephens

Once upon a time, there was a film about little people… called Gremlins. This “inspired” several 80s rip-off franchises, most notably Critters and Ghoulies. But let’s not forget that “little monsters” are a well-used horror trope in such classics as The Gate, Trilogy of Terror, and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark. Irish director/writer Jon Wright has been frank about the origins of this film, eagerly describing it as a cross between Straw Dogs and … yes … Gremlins. He has form with the genre having made Grabbers and Robot Overlords in recent years. A familiar face in the cast also has some good horror credentials, with Hannah John-Kamen having played Jill Valentine in Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City and key roles in The Stranger and Black Mirror series. It should be noted that the release for Unwelcome has been bounced around quite a bit, having missed intended Halloween and other dates. But it’s here now in UK cinemas, so we had a little look at it.


The story starts with loved-up couple Maya (John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) discovering that they have achieved a longed-for pregnancy. Whilst celebrating, Jamie runs afoul of resident low-life scum-bags in the city estate, who nearly kill the two after breaking into their apartment after a minor slight in a sadly highly believable scenario. Fortunately (or so they think), Jamie’s relative in Ireland has just passed on and left him her ramshackle house on the edge of some remote woodland. Eager to make a fresh start with the imminent arrival of their baby, they move there and are charmed by the stunning countryside. But they make two mistakes… they hire the wrong people to do repairs to the house …. and they dismiss the traditions of the local faerie folk. Big mistake. There are goblins at the foot of the garden … and they are bastards.


One of several treats with this film is spotting the well-known character actors. You’ve got GOT’s Hodor himself (Kristian Nairn), one of the Derry Girls (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell), Star Trek alumni Colm Meaney, and the prolific Niamh Cusack. In fact, the cast is top-notch with some really good performances. Not least of which is an excellent turn from John-Kamen who provides some brilliant emoting and a couple of empowering sequences that really stick in the memory. But isn’t this a film about “da leedle people”? And shouldn’t that result in a silly knockabout farce with Muppet-y antagonists? Happily, that’s not the case.  


The film is surprisingly dark at times. The somewhat harrowing open sequence harkens back to Death Wish and despite what you might think about Wright’s comparison it does indeed gain a very Straw Dogs feel in later scenes with certain human locals also taking that title very seriously. Some might feel that use of a “feral” Irish family in the community as a catalyst is somewhat stereotypical, especially when Cromwell is referenced and anti-English sentiments are thrown about. (NB: Some Irish press reviews have been unfairly scathing in this area it seems). But Wright takes care to show that they are an anomaly in the neighbourhood, with other locals showering the protagonists with free booze and food. It might be an easy way to create conflict, but the later scenes are akin to the urban violence and quite disturbing in nature.


The “Red Caps” (as the goblins in the wood are called), don’t actually appear until a good way into the film and are kept in the shadows, to begin with. This makes the decision to put them front-and-centre on the UK poster a little bizarre, but “marketing”, eh? Early glimpses fuel worries that they might be Labyrinth-type creatures, but luckily when they’re more prominent, they are more realistic. Like mini-Orcs from LOTR. Rather than being full CGI (pricey and bland), they’re actors wearing practical goblin heads with motion-captured facial expressions when they’re onscreen. And you’ll be pleased to know that they’re R-rated in every sense. No fairy tale endings here as guts are ripped, heads are cut off, and throats are slashed. Take that, PG-13 horror!


However, it must be emphasised that the tricky pucks are an important part of the plot, but Wright doesn’t focus on them alone. It never becomes a “message movie”, but there are some telling moments where subjects such as toxic machismo, types of abuse, traumatic disorders, and emasculation are woven into the plot without taking it over. The changes in Jamie, who is initially a likeable goofball with no bad points, are especially hard to watch. There is humour, with some great snarky lines such as “Do you want some ketchup to go with that massive chip on your shoulder?” or “ Far be it from me to come between a man and his chocolate biscuit!”. You also have to appreciate satirical modern moments such as Jamie being unable to hear his wife’s screams for help as he’s listening to a podcast about dealing with trauma!


Some reviews have already pointed towards the slower first half being an annoying buffer to getting to the Red-Cap chaos, but this reviewer didn’t feel that this was the case. It felt that the pace and mythology building was set just right. Some people are probably going to have issues with the initial slow burn and non-Goblin scenes, as they will with the sudden jarring tonal changes between gruesome violence and quirky humour. But it genuinely works as an offbeat folk horror with some serious things to say (as well as some gore and LOL lines). We felt that Grabbers was immensely underrated and it’s likely that this will have the same fate. You can’t help wondering that this would have been much better scheduled at Halloween or even the late Christmas period (it would’ve been a great alternative to blue aliens and Whitney Houston). But anyway, this is as good as we hoped, and the strangely joyous final scene is an absolute stunner. We really hope that we see more of the Wright stuff.

It shouldn’t work, but it does. A lovely throwback to the halcyon days when “little monsters” were everywhere in horror. However, despite the Grimm fairy tale set-up, this gains relevance by adding important modern themes to the mixture. Surprisingly dark and bloody in places and with a triumphant central performance from John-Kamen, this is offbeat folk horror that deserves more attention and love.
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