When I first learned about the news of folk horror ‘Unwelcome,’ I misread the name ‘Joe Wright,’ the director who gave us ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ ‘Atonement’ and ‘Hanna’ among others, tried his hand at venturing into the horror territory. I figured this was interesting until I realized the director is actually Jon Wright, who made ‘Grabbers’ and ‘Robot Overlords.’ Although I still have this wishful thinking about what if Joe Wright directs a horror movie, this doesn’t deter me from checking out the movie after all. The reason? I love how Jon Wright pitched ‘Unwelcome’ as ‘Gremlins’ meets ‘Straw Dogs.’ Now, this is a cross between two of the respectively greatest genre films of the ‘80s and ‘70s which made me wonder how come no one thought about it before.
The movie gets off to a promising start as we learn Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth), who lives in a London flat, have been longing for a baby. Their wish comes true one night after Maya gets a positive result from a pregnancy test. But their night of joy is short-lived when a gang of thugs breaks into their home and assault both of them. The opening home-invasion sequence may have been brief, but Jon Wright sure knows how to ratchet up the tension that gives us a taste of a ‘Straw Dogs’-like vibe.
Following the harrowing ordeal, the couple decided to move to the rural Irish countryside, where Jamie’s aunt had recently died and left him her spacious cottage home. Maeve (Niamh Cusack), the neighbor who runs a local pub, tells the couple about Jamie’s aunt, who believes in the little people known as the ‘far darrig’. These creatures happen to live beyond the gate at the bottom of the garden, and in order to appease them, one has to adhere to an age-old tradition of leaving a blood sacrifice or faces the consequences. However, the couple, and especially Maya, isn’t the superstitious type who believes in such a fairy tale.
The couple also has to deal with the only contractor they can find to repair their home. Whelan (Colm Meaney), who prefers them to call him ‘Daddy’ rather than his name, has three adult children, including Aisling (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Eoin (Kristian Naim), and Killian (Chris Walley). The Whelans happens to be a disturbed family with violent tendencies – a result that doesn’t sits well with Jamie, who has an anger management issue after the home-invasion ordeal back in London.
I was hoping that ‘Unwelcome’ would be something of a fun and mean-spirited horror-comedy, but Wright can’t seem to strike a fine balance between his ‘Gremlins’ meets ‘Straw Dogs’ premise. Frankly, the movie is more ‘Straw Dogs’ here as Mark Stay, and Jon Wright’s screenplay spends significant time focusing on the wild Whelan family. Colm Meaney is particularly menacing as the patriarch of the Whelan family, and the ‘Straw Dogs’-inspired plot inevitably leads them to invade the couple’s home over a certain issue that drives them stark raving mad. The eventual home-invasion showdown in the third act sees Wright doesn’t skimp on the graphic violence, and he does a good job emulating the pessimistic tone and feel of the aforementioned late Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 genre classic.
Now, if this movie is solely a ‘Straw Dogs-like home invasion thriller, I would give it a higher score. But too bad Wright is taking his time too long to properly introduce the far darrig. Even by the time they finally show up, it feels too little (no pun intended) and too late. The only consolation about these far jarring is how the movie brilliantly incorporates visual effects and practical techniques with a mix of motion-capture performances. The goblin-like far darrig creatures are very mean and mischievous, too, with the latter resulting in a tonally jarring genre shift from a violent home-invasion thriller to a creature feature that is supposed to deliver some laughs. The comedy parts are just too few and far between to make enough good impression that we see a ‘Gremlins’-like horror film as well. It’s a pity because I do enjoy the creature effects of the far darrig and how I wish Wright would delve deeper into the Irish folk-horror mythology.
Speaking of the word ‘jarring’, the movie looks odd from the way they light the daylight scenes in the rural Irish countryside. It made me feel as if I was watching a horror movie that takes place in a studio lot, complete with artificial lighting. Maybe Wright uses such a technique to give his movie a fairy-tale-like feel, given its mythological folk-horror setup but at the same time, it doesn’t look right for its visceral nature of ‘Straw Dogs’-like homage.
As for the cast, Hannah John-Kamen, best known for her TV roles in ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Killjoys’ and, of course, ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp,’ delivers an engaging performance as the heavily-pregnant Maya while Douglas Booth tries his best to look as if he’s playing Dustin Hoffman’s emasculated anti-hero seen in ‘Straw Dogs’ but only to a certain extent. The latter is especially true with Booth’s character’s awkwardly erratic behavior from a PTSD-inflicted husband with violent outbursts to someone who becomes timid at one point during the climactic third act.
Overall, ‘Unwelcome’ has a few thrilling moments, but its disjointed mix ruins the potential to turn this into a genre classic.