Jon Wright’s Unwelcome returns to familiar folk horror territory in his depiction of a young couple who escape London to the safety of the peaceful Irish countryside—or so they think.
These fairies are not the cute, Tinkerbell-like creatures of popular imagination. They are a bloodthirsty tribe of mini-monsters who will lend aid to those in need; but only ever at a price. The fairies are referred to as ‘Redcaps’ here, or the ‘fear dearg’. In actuality, the fear dearg are a type of solitary Irish fairy, while Redcaps are a British creature. The choice to use the name ‘Redcaps’ might be to distinguish Unwelcome from Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015), which it bears more than a passing resemblance to. As in Hardy’s film, Unwelcome sees a young family, Jamie (Douglas Booth) and the heavily pregnant Maya (Hannah John-Kamen), flee the urban nightmare of London to the pastoral heaven of rural Ireland—but their ignorance of native tradition puts their baby at risk from evil fairies lurking in the woods. The idea isn’t original, and the film is underwritten, but Unwelcome is redeemed by a stellar cast and fun creature design.
Jamie and Maya have recently suffered a violent home invasion, so when Jamie’s aunt Maeve leaves them a home in the Irish countryside they jump at the opportunity. There is one condition though, as local woman Niamh explains on their arrival: a blood offering must be left every evening at the garden wall, for the Redcaps. They are always waiting, Niamh explains. Always hungry. Things get complicated when Maya and Jamie hire a volatile and aggressive local family to do some work on the house, played by a star studded line-up including Colm Meaney, Jamie Lee O’Donnell of Derry Girls fame, Chris Walley from The Young Offenders, and Kristian Nairn from Game of Thrones. Together they make up the Whelan family, representing the more threatening side of the local population. They quickly make themselves too much at home at Maya and Jamie’s, and when things take a dangerous turn Maya has to make a difficult bargain with the Redcaps to protect her family.
The film takes its time getting going, and the eventual appearance of the Redcaps brings an enjoyable amount of gore and action to proceedings. The design that has gone into the fairies is by far the most impressive part of the film; the diminutive, goblin-like creatures are imaginative and fun, reminiscent of The Labyrinth or Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. Closer to the monsters of Gremlins or Critters than the type of mysterious folk horror creatures we had been led to expect, they bring an unexpected humour and light-heartedness to the film.
This is a welcome but abrupt shift in tone. The local community has a fearful respect for the fairies, and their comedic appearance leaves the overall tone of the film a little jumbled and contradictory. However, it’s a small price to pay for the Redcaps: a unique and wonderful creation from their costuming to the puppetry, voice acting, and special effects.
Hannah John-Kamen does a creditable job as Maya, and the supporting performances are strong too, especially from Niamh Cusack as the harbinger of doom. But without a doubt, the most unfortunate part of Unwelcome is its absolute waste of the Whelan family. Actors as strong as Meaney, O’Donnell and Walley should make for an incredibly powerful family dynamic, but despite stellar performances from all three, there is only so much they can do with the simple and limited dialogue. Their lines are badly underwritten, as is much of the script in general. Even Maya and especially Jamie are mere sketches, with little character development throughout the narrative.
This becomes more problematic in the film’s depiction of the local Irish people. Through pure laziness, the portrayal of Irish people in Unwelcome borders on paddywhackery in certain unfortunate moments (like when a man comes up to the couple in the pub and all he says is “bejesus”, or giving a talented actor like Lalor Roddy the line “you feckin’ jackeens—I’ll kill your arse with yis”).
The film does best in its tense moments, several of which are extremely effective, especially by placing the heavily pregnant Maya in danger. The cinematography is nothing to write home about, and the fact that the film suddenly resorts to a hyper-saturated Suspira-esque colour grade towards the end feels less like an intentional choice, and more like a last-minute decision to try and inject some originality once the footage had already been shot.
Overall, Unwelcome boasts some truly commendable high points, including moments of effective tension and especially the wonderful Redcap design. But it wastes its cast through thin writing. The film’s flaws might be easier to overlook if it didn’t bear such a strong similarity with The Hallow, but to remake such a specific story you have to bring a lot more to the table. If you have to choose, watch Hardy’s film instead.
Words by Eli Dolliver
Support The Indiependent
We’re trying to raise £200 a month to help cover our operational costs. This includes our ‘Writer of the Month’ awards, where we recognise the amazing work produced by our contributor team. If you’ve enjoyed reading our site, we’d really appreciate it if you could donate to The Indiependent. Whether you can give £1 or £10, you’d be making a huge difference to our small team.