[Review] 'Unwelcome' Blends a Home Invasion Thriller with Fairy Tale Horror for Mixed Results
Irish folklore is loaded with fantastical creatures. Some enchanting. Others, monstrous. In Grabbers director Jon Wright’s latest, Unwelcome, he returns to tell an Irish horror story which invites viewers into a strange, dark tale that digs up Ireland’s tiny devils, the Redcaps.
Written by Wright and Mark Stay (Robot Overlords), Unwelcome stars magnetic actress Hannah John-Camen (Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City) as expectant mother, Maya. After she and her husband, Jamie (Mary Shelley’s Douglas Booth) survive an attack in their urban apartment, they inherit his recently deceased aunt’s cottage in rural Ireland. There, they finally feel safe. Until they learn of the Redcaps, cruel goblins which Jamie’s aunt used to offer blood to every night…blood which the goblins demand at any price.
Along with a cast which includes experienced actor Colm Meaney as roofer Whelan (he insists you call him Daddy) and Game of Thrones’ Kristian Nairn as his son, Unwelcome thrives on strong performances. John-Kamen and Booth have such warm chemistry together that you can’t help but smile at their love. You feel their joy of discovering they’re (finally) pregnant. And the devastation is real following the nightmarish attack which sends them each spiraling down different paths in coping with their trauma. Maya relives visions of her attackers, while Jamie struggles with a crisis of manhood that has left him feeling like a coward. All of it an intriguing setup for a home-invasion film with a monstrous twist.
Those of you expecting another hilarious horror-comedy from the guy who made the bar flies vs sea monsters movie, check those expectations at the door because true to the title, Unwelcome is not an inviting film. Wright channels something much darker here, creating an effective sense of foreboding throughout. From methodical camera movement which creeps and crawls to Christian Henson’s titillating score, Wright rarely allows the viewer to be comfortable. Some of that comes from the overwhelming use of yellow which covers everything from the walls of the house to the couple’s car and even Maya’s dress. It insinuates the idea that rot is spreading around and within our protagonists, exacerbated by Hamish Doyne-Ditmas’ otherwise gorgeous cinematography. Unwelcome is a beautiful film, inspiring a storybook vibe with bright colors and lush settings. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you’d stumbled into a joyful fairytale.
Except there’s no joy in this house.
As if to match the antics of the creatures which reside in the protagonist’s garden, a mean spirit runs through Unwelcome which may put off some viewers. Whether it’s the suffocating trauma of the married couple or the nasty, perverted Whelan family which they’ve hired to fix up their house, Wright consistently finds ways to get the viewer shifting in their seat. Which would be great, if some of it didn’t feel forced or entirely unnecessary (one moment in particular flips from sweet to horrid in such a dumbfounding way that it had this reviewer shouting “oh, come on!”). All of that being said, if you live for watching revolting characters get what’s coming to them, Unwelcome sure does deliver on that front. It just drags its feet getting there, one little goblin foot at a time.
It would be unfair to say Unwelcome feels like two different movies, but the (delightful) tonal shift in the third act is hard to ignore. For much of the runtime, the story plays out like you’re average (albeit well-made) “town with a dark secret” horror film. Mysterious townsfolk. Hints of vague lore. Main characters doing little besides fighting (god I’m tired of horror movie couples where one refuses to believe the other no matter the circumstances). Until the finale arrives, and Unwelcome suddenly becomes an unrestrained gore-fest that plants its roots in comedic creature features such as Critters or Ghoulies. Unwelcome certainly could’ve used more of that, if only to lift a sleepy middle section.
Part of the issue is that Unwelcome comes off as restrained until those final minutes. What kills do occur happen off-screen. The exploration of the couple’s trauma doesn’t allow for much laughs to fit with the third act. Perhaps most dumbfounding is that important interactions Maya has with the Redcaps occur out of sight as well, lessening the impact of her decisions to such a degree that Unwelcome plays like a puzzle with missing pieces. The gut-splitting gore and tongue-through-cheek twisted humor which arrive later are almost worth the meandering wait, at least they will be for those of you willing to give Unwelcome your patience.
Minimal on the elements which work best in this story it may be, but Wright’s film nevertheless offers up a decent dark fantasy monster movie with a nasty bite. Any fan of tiny terror films will find something to sink their teeth into with Unwelcome, just go in knowing it may leave you hungry for more rather than full and satisfied.
Unwelcome arrives in theaters March 8th as part of the AMC Thrills & Chills lineup, and on Digital March 14th from Well Go USA Entertainment.
By Matt Konopka
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