Jon Wright’s new folk horror Unwelcome is arguably a stranger beast than the ones to be found within it. The film’s opening moments are aggressive, violent and harrowing. They establish an unexpectedly mean-spirited and cruel tone, which seems contradictory to the film’s marketing, which sold it as a supernatural goblin-led creature feature. However, the film has no intention of sticking to this. Refusing to be just one type of film, it instead traverses its way through a collection of creepy, campy and comical cinematic chapters – but in the end the audience’s experience is all the better for it.
The film follows young, expecting couple Jamie (Douglas Booth) and Maya (Hannah John-Kamen). After Jamie’s great-aunt dies and leaves them her property, they move from their flat in London to a large house in rural Ireland. As the couple attempt to get settled into their new family home they learn about the local superstition of the redcaps: murderous goblin-like creatures who supposedly dwell in the forest which adjoins their now back garden. However, these figures of local folklore aren’t the only threats Jamie and Maya need to be wary of. As an English couple in Ireland they aren’t granted the most hospitable of welcomes from all of their new neighbours, not least from one local family with an infamously nasty reputation, the Whelans.
The move from the hustle and bustle of London to the peaceful landscapes of rural Ireland is just the change of pace that Jamie and Maya are looking for. However, this shift isn’t so welcome, as the plot quickly gets bogged down and loses its previously impressive momentum. The change in location brings with it an unsightly and artificial looking tinge to the cinematography too, conveying an uncharacteristically sun-drenched Emerald Isle. This odd and feigned visual at least mirrors the unusual trajectory of the film, as it begins to embrace its many, many different styles.
Amidst the messy and undisciplined plot it’s surprisingly not the redcaps who take centre stage, but the aforementioned Whelans. Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Chris Walley and Kristian Nairn portray the unruly Whelan siblings, whilst Colm Meaney plays their over-assertive father. It’s thanks to the presence of this much-loved Irish talent that the unfocused events of film become at least watchable. Unsurprisingly, it’s Meaney in particular who stands out with an especially menacing turn, making good on his last name. Conversely, Booth and John-Kamen have an unmistakable English awkwardness to them, especially alongside the Irish cast. Although their work is at times unconvincing, thanks to the context of their characters’ situation they get away with it, as they certainly do feel out of place.
However, the film’s real lucky charm doesn’t properly show up until the third act. Yes, of course those goblin-y beasties on the poster will be the reason most buy their tickets and thankfully they are worth the price of admission. We get glimpses of them throughout the film, but not nearly often enough. When they finally grab that spotlight with their tiny little goblin hands in the third act, the finale becomes wondrously bonkers enough to forgive the uneven and tonally haphazard film that came before it.
It’s in this final act that everything at last comes together and Unwelcome becomes like a more gruesome Gremlins, but drenched in Guinness. The violence is taken up a notch in the best way possible; swapping out its previously more sinister approach for an increasingly boisterous one. As a result of this change the comedy then takes off too. Meaney and Walley deliver some really funny father-son dialogue as their dynamic reaches its full potential.
It’s fair to say that until its completely unhinged conclusion Unwelcome is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Its scattered tone, unsightly visuals and wonky pacing make it feel like Wright is still figuring out what kind of film he wants to make as it unfolds before his very eyes. Luckily, he does manage to work it out before it’s too late, but only just. For many, the film’s early shortcomings will seal its fate, but for those willing to let this freakish fairytale run its full course, their patience will be rewarded with a truly uproarious and unrestrained folklore finale that’s got all the makings of a future cult classic.
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