Horror has rarely enjoyed so honeyed an aesthetic as in Jon Wright’s folk frightmare Unwelcome. Shot in an marketably lush Ireland, the film resembles a unusually morbid advert for Kerrygold, with increasing recourse to seventies pastiche. It’s a cliché ridden affair and somewhat meandering, particularly in the middle. That is, it’s banal until the whole thing goes Fraggle Rock in its frankly bizarre final third. Wright pitched the film as Gremlins meets Straw Dogs. In executing so potent a vision, the Robot Overlords director does a thoroughly good job in establishing why Straw Dogs was all the more effective without the addition of Gremlins.
Things start out fair enough, with clunky dialogue and unconvincing characters only marginally hampering the brute effect of Mark Stay’s script. Douglas Booth – best known as Julian Fellows’ bland Romeo – and Hannah John-Kamen – Ant-Man’s Ghost – play young lovers Jamie and Maya. It’s a rollercoaster life living off the mean streets of London. One minute the pair are learning that their fertility woes are no more – hooray! – the next they’re being beaten raw by local skinheads – boo! What fortune, then, that Jamie’s great-aunt is about to pop her clogs and leave him her fixer upper rural retreat in Ye Olde Ireland.
It’s a pretty mangy prospect but Jamie and Maya are thrilled, even as local landlady Niamh (Niamh Cusack) warns that the house boarders the forrest realm of the ‘far darrig’ – aka, ‘Red Caps’. Drawn from tales of Irish folklore’s grisliest practical jokers – Wright sources his own grandfather’s storytelling – Unwelcome’s far darrig are goblin eared, pixie like creatures, all pointy and armoury. They demand a meat offering each night, deposited on a platter at the end of the garden. Woe betide he or she who forgets to deliver. It’s enticing enough a prospect but just one the film’s many half-developed and occasionally forgotten plot strands. Only once is meat offered in the film and no repercussions are felt. See also the disappearance of an old drunk and the mysterious loss of Great Aunt Maeve’s first and only child many decades prior.
Given more airtime, but decidedly less interesting, are thematic explorations of modern day masculinity and all scenes relating to the repair of Maeve’s scare bnb. Jamie and Maya employ the grossly unlikeable Whelan family to fix up their new roof. Nobody else was free. Colm Meaney at least brings unsettling conviction to the role of morally dubious patriarch Daddy Whelan but his brash children fare less well. Most offensive is notionally imbecilic man-child Eoin, played insensitively by Game of Thrones’ Kristian Nairn in crass reminiscence of Steinbeck’s Lennie Small. Few in the film totally escape this broad approach to character design but John-Kamen is, in fairness, strong. Through Maya, she channels a sort of Mia Farrow heritage.
There’s a frustratingly long wait for those here for goblin mayhem alone and Unwelcome hasn’t half the sense of fun of Wright’s earlier monster flick Grabbers. When the childlike giggles do become physical forms, the result is a total devastation of any and all tension Unwelcome has established up until this point. There is technical pleasure to be had in their form. Amid a multiplex dominated by computer generated monstrosities, Wright’s dedication to Jim Henson-esque puppetry is admirable. Where things falter is in how preposterous the timorous beasties turn out to be. Much like the Ballykissangelic visual gloss, it’s an overworked flourish atop an underworked overall effort.