‘Unwelcome’ review – An almost welcome creature-feature

The most frightening part of Jon Wright‘s Unwelcome happens in the movie’s beginning. After an altercation with three antisocial types outside a convenience store, Douglas Booth‘s character Jamie is followed home and then brutally beaten along with his newly pregnant wife Maya (Hannah John-Kamen). The opening is so alarming that nothing that follows in this horror movie can measure up, at least in terms of accessible fears.

After the initial shock of Jamie and Maya’s attack, the couple moves to a rural part of Ireland. Jamie’s late great-aunt left him her old home, which comes with certain caveats. On top of all the much needed repairs, a neighbor informs the new tenants of the Red Caps. So long as Jamie and Maya provide a daily offering of liver to these Leprechaun-like, mythical forest dwellers, they and everyone else in the village are safe. Of course being from a big city, the idea of Red Caps seems superstitious to the main characters. Maya, after claiming she’d handle the Red Caps ritual herself, naturally forgets and all hell starts to break loose. Residents soon go missing and the locals blame the new folks in town.

Unwelcome is a surface-level study of culture clashes more than it is a horror movie. For starters, the two central urbanites are accosted by hoodie types who target Jamie simply because they think he’s posh. He’s far from it, but Jamie standing up to his street hecklers sets off an explosive reaction that evokes memories of sociocultural Brit horrors like Eden Lake and The Expelled. The classism continues once xenophobia is added to the mix. The Irish characters, particularly members of the Whelan family, do not take kindly to their new British neighbors, and they see them as the cause of everything gone wrong since their arrival. In all fairness, Jamie and Maya do upset the balance by not heeding by the area’s customs; their refusal to take care of the Red Caps, incidental or not, essentially dooms everyone. This overblown metaphor is finally bolstered by stereotypes of both the Irish and British, including the Whelan children being violent ne’er-do-wells and Jamie being weak and ineffectual.

As much as the Red Caps end up playing second fiddle to the story’s actual threat, the choice makes for a better movie. Seeing too much of them could have led to desensitization on the audience’s part. Wright instead wisely limits the goblins’ screen-time, ensuring the movie not only has multiple menaces and higher stakes but also less of an “A to B” trajectory. The Whelans becoming the most overt antagonist can be seen as a letdown for anyone craving a streamlined monster movie, but the Red Caps do eventually show up. To make up for their tardiness, these little fiends are created through practical means rather than digital. It’s a rare sight nowadays.

Unwelcome is confused about the sort of movie it wants to be. Is it a culture-shock allegory with a tacked-on folk-horror motif? Or does it simply want to add its two cents to the age-old question, “Who’s the real monster here?” Maybe it’s really about assimilation. There’s also a subplot about coping mechanisms for trauma that ultimately gets overshadowed. Whatever their goal, Jon Wright and writer Mark Stay deliver an offbeat movie featuring an unexpected conclusion that almost warrants its lingering runtime and muddled tone.

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