A strange but consistently entertaining thriller, Unwelcome is the equivalent of Straw Dogs meets Troll. An import from Ireland, this dark fairy tale might revolve around the mythical “red cap” goblins, but it boasts a fairly intimate domestic thriller at its core.
It opens in London where a young married couple, Maya (Hannah John-Kamen of Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Jamie (Douglas Booth of Romeo and Juliet), have just find out they are pregnant. But when Jamie is found by some locals, and a disturbing home invasion occurs that ends with Maya miscarrying. The two spend a year overcoming the trauma before moving to a small country town in Ireland – pregnant again.
You see, Jamie’s aunt has just died and left him a beautiful country-side home. But when they arrive, they are pretty swiftly told that they need to keep up some local traditions. One of them is to leave an offering of blood out every night at the gate of the forest – which, of course, is located in Maya and Jamie’s new backyard.
Maeve (Niahm Cusack) – one of Jamie’s aunt’s closest friends – explains that the blood offering must be done, or the “red caps” will come for them. Of course, Maya doesn’t believe it, but when she has an encounter with one, she realizes they live in a place that has a lot more going on under the surface then either she or her husband expected.
When the couple hires a family of handymen to help fix their kitchen and roof, they find they have even more trouble to deal with. The family, headed by “Daddy” (Colm Meaney), includes two nasty siblings (played by Chris Walley and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and their misfit oaf of a brother, played by Kristian Nairn. This family doesn’t take too kindly to the new folks in town, and Maya and Jamie aren’t too fond of them either.
So, despite having to deal with a baby that is days from being born and the threat of goblins coming to “visit,” the young couple must defend themselves against a crazy roofer family who prove to be scarier than any dark fable could ever be.
Or can it?
Directed by Jon Wright (Grabbers) and co-written with Mark Stay, this fascinating and unusual film has a lot to offer, despite its rather bizarre and sometimes silly premise. What sells the film are the actors, who are all believable in their various plights. Having witnessed Maya and Jamie’s initial pain, we immediately care for them, and they quickly become the audience surrogate as we learn about the mythology that surrounds their new home town. Their disbelief and distraction at dealing with the bullying of the roofers makes us instantly worry for their safety because we like them so much.
But should we be worried about the roofers? Or the red caps? Or both?
Wright stages his film in a way that makes their new Ireland home seem like a storybook. The house and the backyard are clearly on a soundstage, with sunsets and lighting that always seem a bit too intense and “off.” This adds a nice otherworldly feel to the film, and when Maya enters the forest she has been forbidden to step foot into, the storybook feel only increases.
Sure, the red caps are a bit goofy, but Wright utilizes some nice camera tricks to make the diminutive creatures look like they are actually interacting with those around them. And as funny as they might seem, they are pretty vicious.
But it is the handymen family that is the bigger threat, and Wright and the actors deal with this part of the story with a scary intensity. Wright doesn’t hold back on the violence, so while you become invested in our couple dealing with a real-life threat, you always remember the “other” threat waiting at the gate door.
All in all, Unwelcome is a nifty thriller. Part domestic drama, part home-invasion thriller, and part Grimm’s Fairy Tale, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. In this interaction, anyway. Not all of the film’s themes and tones work together perfectly, and the ending has a few esoteric moments that feel out of place, but it still manages to engage and entertain.
Unwelcome it is not. If you’re willing to leave a sacrifice at the gate, there are some fun doors to open here.