Despite some brilliant Gremlins-esque puppet work, Jon Wright's film wastes too much time on a sub-Straw Dogs plot
Of all the questions a horror movie could pose, “what would happen if Joe Dante’s Gremlins got involved in the finale of Straw Dogs?” is not a particularly bad one. At the heart of the much-delayed Unwelcome (its first full-length trailer came out over a year ago) is this fun and funny conundrum, but Jon Wright’s film makes you work so hard to get to this showdown that, by the time it arrives, it doesn’t quite feel worth it. It’s a silly and blood-soaked highlight in an otherwise patchy and abrasive film.
The Gremlins here are, in fact, Redcaps – creatures from Irish folklore that might be mistaken for leprechauns at first glance but are far more devious, demanding nightly blood offerings lest they come to your house and steal your baby. Under threat from these beings are the heavily-pregnant Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and her partner Jamie (Douglas Booth), two middle-class Londoners who have inherited Jamie’s ancestral rural Irish home in the wake of a traumatic home invasion in their Camden flat. Heading to Ireland for some peace and quiet, they instead find little but more violence.
It takes a long old time for them to meet the Redcaps, though – the initial villains of Unwelcome are the hostile locals, who Jamie in particular finds constant new ways to rile up. Eventually, this will come to a head when two sets of home invaders, one supernatural and one just mean, attack on the same night, but way too much of Unwelcome’s runtime is spent on very familiar-feeling city boy vs yokel conflicts.
Booth plays Jamie’s feebleness and fear (and concurrent overcompensation) well, but most of his scenes are just too predictable, facing off against the nasty-pieces-of-work Whelan family in ways you’ve definitely seen explored more interestingly in this genre. You’re just waiting for the Redcaps to arrive and there’s never quite enough of them to properly elevate the rest of the film.
It’s a shame, because they are some really fantastic creatures, practical puppeteering making these bloodthirsty three-foot goblins feel lethally real despite their inherent silliness (some great voice acting also helps with this, the easy best moment of Unwelcome coming when a Redcap calls Jamie a “silly billy”). The absolutely wackadoo finale overdoes their lore, suddenly expanding the scope of the story too far but, if they were housed in a better film, these guys would be instant horror icons.
Even in the quieter moments, Wright aims to conjure the supernatural through a colour grade of deeply saturated oranges and reds, an intermittently effective technique that sometimes proves immersively surreal but at other points is just a distraction, unnecessarily obscuring the frame. Ultimately, though, Unwelcome is undone simply in its lack of focus, the whole thing not really coming together until the climactic set-piece and making you wait far too long for that to happen before paying off with an ending that is likely to leave the vast majority of audiences unsatisfied. If you’re a really big fan of practical FX ‘80s horror, the superb puppet work ensures there’s probably enough here for you to enjoy, but for everyone else, the failings of Unwelcome exceed its rewards.
Unwelcome is released in UK cinemas on 27 January.Where to watch