Many notable horror films begin with an intense and shocking prologue that drives the story and characters into an isolating or unknown place. Films like The Changeling, Dead Calm, or The Descent showed that traumatising the audience with a shocking open can endear them to the protagonists, and Unwelcome manages that with a surprisingly vicious opening scene where young expecting couple, Jamie (Douglas Booth) and Maya (Hannah John-Kamen), are the victims of a home invasion by some London street criminals. It’s a solid opening setting the tone for a dark and moody horror film.
In an effort to find some peace, and raise their child somewhere safe, they move to Ireland where Jamie’s late Aunt has left them a pretty but slightly dilapidated farmhouse. Once there, local publican Maeve (Niamh Cusack) warns that once a day, Maya needs to leave a blood offering to the Far Darrig by an ancient stone gate at the back of the garden. As if this weird custom isn’t bad enough, Jamie hires local builders, the Whelan family, to do repairs, but who turn out to be the village ne’er-do-wells with violent tendencies. Thus between the couple’s unresolved trauma, the ever-present irritation of the Whelans and the discomfort of being the only English couple in an insular Irish community, there’s barely enough mental space left for dealing with some hungry and murderous pixies living in the woods.
Co-writer and director Jon Wright, made a name for himself with the surprisingly fun comedy-horror film Grabbers, a rather silly romp about alcohol-hating squid monsters attacking a small Irish village. It was a film that worked because it understood how silly the premise was, and played into it with only a pretence of a straight face. The issue with Unwelcome, which unfortunately sinks it completely, is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is trying to be. Wright and Mark Stay‘s script owes a great deal to Straw Dogs, a film cited heavily in the marketing as an influence. But while Peckinpah’s masterpiece; and Scottish novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm upon which it is based, are dark dramas, Unwelcome is hardly scary in the slightest, and barely ever manages to raise even a chuckle for most of the runtime.
The film moves in fits and starts, skipping over what could be important character building moments, then dragging through interminable scenes which are possibly supposed to be funny. Before swinging occasionally from comedic ‘Oirish’ stereotyped yokels, to overwrought scenes of Hannah John-Kamen trying to convey PTSD and labour pains. It isn’t helped that Douglas Booth seems to have been completely miscast, as he acts like he’s the weedy try-hard boyfriend from a mid-’90s British sitcom a’la Men Behaving Badly, or Coupling. Unfortunately, no-else in the film seems to have been sent that memo, with Whelan brother and sister duo Chris Walley and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell playing up a half-baked routine from Snatch, whilst Colm Meaney runs around chewing scenery and insisting everyone calls him ‘Daddy’ as the psychotic Whelan patriarch. They’re never bad in their roles, but the flat dialogue never manages to be funny, or scary enough. Kristian Nairn does a little better, as the quiet, and seemingly gentle giant Whelan son, getting a moment of genuine emotion that momentarily threatens to send the film in an interesting direction, and tying into the Straw Dogs lineage a bit more, before the whole thing skids off the rails again moments later.
Meanwhile, Maya’s weird communions with the “little people” is probably the high point of the film, as the effects and prosthetics work is far above the standard of what this film deserves. The film trades in a strange mish-mash of Celtic folklore, namedropping the Far Darrig, a solitary baby-stealing trickster fairy of Irish legend, and muddling it in with the myth of the old Scots hobgoblin, the Red Cap. This resultant confused tribe of entities are similarly baffling in their wants and intent, but damn if they don’t look good. Using forced perspective, oversize sets, and some other camera trickery the prosthetic-wearing actors look positively delightful in their goblin suits. What’s more, the occasionally chirped comments made by them got the only laughs in the cinema. It does beg a question if this entire endeavour was simply a means to make a show reel for the effects company behind them, as otherwise it’s unclear why the house and garden portions of the film were shot on such an obviously badly lit soundstage. If not to control the lighting for the effects, then it’s simply a baffling choice, and in any case, looks mostly terrible and doesn’t match at all with the real outdoor scenes.
It wouldn’t be fair to say this is a film without merit, and to horror movie aficionados, especially those who like novelty and prosthetic effects over modern CGI, there is something here. For everyone else, this will just feel like a frustrating and messy waste of both your time and the promise of a genuinely good opening scene.
In cinemas nationwide