Jon Wright’s 2012 creature feature Grabbers strikes such a fine balance between humor, eccentric characters, tentacular FX, and political subtext that it might qualify as one of the 2010s’ triumphs of independent genre cinema. His follow-up Robot Wars merely echoed its predecessor’s spirit without recapturing it, leaving his audience to wonder whether it’s better to hope for a new direction (even if unsuccessful) or a skillful rehash (even if artistically stagnant). So it’s a welcome discovery that Wright’s latest film, Unwelcome, feels of a piece with Grabbers while taking its own distinct tack. Like Grabbers, Unwelcome lodges itself firmly in Ireland’s smalltown soil, though Wright returns to shore from the former’s remote island setting and opts instead for the country’s rural idyll; both films focus on protagonists burdened by personal struggles while putting up with otherworldly nuisances. In Grabbers, the “nuisance” is a race of flesh-hungry extraterrestrial octopods. In Unwelcome, it’s the far darrig.
This is par for the course. A sizable chunk of Ireland’s contemporary horror cinema is informed by traditional folklore, and a chunk of that chunk relates to fae critters who absolutely cannot resist the opportunity to kidnap a baby: See Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, Michael Tully’s Don’t Leave Home, and Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground. Unwelcome fits snugly in this company, being the story of parents-to-be Jamie (Douglas Booth) and Maya (Hannah John-Kamen), recently decamped from London after a home invasion leaves the couple traumatized and in desperate need for, as Jamie puts it, “peace.” His late great-aunt left him her farmhouse in her will, and he decides to move Maya there so they can raise their imminent newborn in safety’s bosom.
The thing about Ireland is, there are magical and supernatural and plain old bizarre entities lying in wait no matter where you go. Maeve, for instance, was known to put out a piece of raw liver by her garden gate every night, an offering for the far darrig–the little people known as Red Caps, snickering goblins all too happy to go straight from “mischievous” to “murderous” should circumstances permit. Things swiftly get weird around her new nest, and, after the couple hires a local family to renovate the house, they get dangerous, too. The Whelans–“Daddy” (Colm Meaney) and his three adult children, Aisling (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Killian (Chris Walley), and Eoin (Kristian Nairn)–are such scoundrels that they make the Red Caps look preferable as neighbors.
Comparisons between Unwelcome and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs abound in the film’s early reviews–it opened in Ireland and the U.K. in January–and for the most part, they work. But at times the film’s truly unwelcoming character is Jamie, who reacts to that violent break-in by trying to mold himself into a prototypically manly shape. He’s squirrely and patronizing, and redeemed largely by the unfailingly kind Maya: She loves him, and that’s good enough for the audience. But it isn’t good enough for the Whelans, who find Jamie too aloof for their liking. He’s actually aloof because he’s afraid; if he brought himself to say so, he and Daddy would be spared an awful lot of trouble.
Of course, then there would be no movie, which means there would be no ferocious lead performance from John-Kamen. She is an anchoring force in a sea of male insecurity; the film doesn’t look down on Jamie for his stubborn attempts at macho bravado, but it does make clear the exhausting effect his performativity has on Maya. Still, John-Kamen lets Maya’s affection for and attraction to Jamie shine through the toll taken on her body and mind by pregnancy hormones, and her own residual PTSD, and then supports these traits with frazzle and exasperation. Maya should be taking it easy. Instead, she’s solving everyone else’s problems and negotiating with Red Caps. John-Kamen gives Maya patience and grace, but keeps a reserve of mama bear savagery for necessary situations, which, when tapped, is an awesome sight to behold.
Her work in Unwelcome is one of its two best features. The other, unsurprisingly given Wright’s facility with monsters and beasties, is the effects work put into the Red Caps, whose design harkens all the way back to 1980s and ’90s horror, recalling the Ghoulies and Puppetmaster movies, as well as the works of Jim Henson. The obvious care put into the Red Caps’ designs is a two-edged sword: They’re so tactile and alive that their relatively minor role in the film feels a shame, but at the same time not seeing them is sort of the point. Folk like the far darrig make it their business not to be seen, period. That we get to glimpse them is a gift.
Their brief presence in Unwelcome signals Wright’s intentions for his narrative. Where Grabbers is a raucous gem, Unwelcome is subdued, more polished but sadder. In Grabbers, the monster is the monster. In Unwelcome, man comes a close second. Because Wright happens to be pretty good at making movies, this dynamic comes off as matter of fact instead of preachy. The Whelans aren’t the “real” monsters, just thuggish assholes; it’s hard to look monstrous next to a pack of baby-nicking goblins. Still, Unwelcome wants for more of them, and perhaps a bit of buoyancy to mitigate the harsh realities at its center. In Grabbers, Wright’s leads bring their troubles to a monster fight. Here, the monster fight is brought into their troubles. The result is pleasing, but a tad stiff for its own good.
Director: Jon Wright
Writer: Jon Wright
Starring: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Colm Meaney, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Chris Walley, Kristian Nairn, Niamh Cusack, Paul Warren, Rick Warden
Release Date: March 10, 2023
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.