Unwelcome uses storybook creatures and a spooky forest to tell a haunting story that stays with you long after it’s over. This combination of magical creatures and horror isn’t something that is seen too often, with only a few movies jumping to mind as I’m writing this. So if done right, it’s a major win, although, it’s a risky gamble that could easily turn cheesy.
Director Jon Wright brings Unwelcome to life with a script co-written by Mark Stay. Perhaps the biggest draw of Unwelcome is some of the recognizable names and faces appearing on the screen. Hannah John Kamen, best known for her role as Ghost in Ant-Man and the Wasp, leads the film. She’s joined by Douglas Booth, who’s played in films such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jupiter Ascending, and Mary Shelley. Joining them both is Kristian Nairn who played the lovable Hodor in Game of Thrones. So is Unwelcome worth your time when it arrives this Friday in AMC theaters for their Thrills and Chills lineup?
[Warning: Slight spoilers and impressions from Unwelcome are below!]
A change of scenery is required
Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) have a simple life when we first meet them in Unwelcome. They desire to be parents, a happiness that’s bestowed upon them in the first couple of minutes. But their joy isn’t meant to last. Jamie is followed back to their apartment by a gang of angry hooligans who then pummel Maya and Jamie. The couple realize that it’s time for a move for their and their baby’s safety.
The couple decides to move into an idyllic house in the Irish countryside, inherited from Jamie’s deceased aunt. While ultimately it’s a horrid situation, it works in the couple’s favor as they attempt to move on with their lives. On their move-in day, they discover that the property comes with a heavy string attached for the new occupants. Maeve (Niamh Cusack), a friend of the deceased aunt, informs them that Jamie’s aunt left a blood offering daily at the garden door for the red-caps, also known as a Leprechaun.
Maya and Jamie appear skeptical, and rightfully so. Who in their right mind would believe in magical forest goblins who require feeding to behave? Maeve does and offers to do the feeding for them. Maya promises to do it herself, though forgets rather soon to follow through. From that point on, Unwelcome dives head first into the fantastical horror. However, not in the way I expected or thought it was going to go.
Interesting choices in Unwelcome
One of the most interesting aspects of this storybook horror film was how front and center the human characters are. A large chunk of this film focused on Maya and Jamie, as well as the other individuals living near them. Many of the townspeople are odd, to the point of being unsettling. At first, it felt similar to the Stepford Wives, giving me a general uneasiness, though that changes over time. Such a focus on the humans, with a lack of the actual goblin creatures, was unexpected, to say the least.
In fact, it was shocking that the audience’s first glimpse of the red caps doesn’t occur until about halfway through the movie and even that was a blink-and-you-’ll-miss-it moment. For a film that uses them in their promotional material and description of the film, they are rather absent until the later part of the second act. Not that it’s a problem, it just struck me as an interesting choice for a horror movie.
The true horror is the monsters that live among us, a point that Unwelcome drives home easily. It felt more in line with films like Hush or The Strangers, featuring some goblins as a plot device. Some might be disappointed with that, but I found it refreshing. The acting and human characters are easily the most engaging parts of the film, with Hannah John-Kamen standing out the most. She does most of the emotional labor, carrying the film on her shoulders.
Where Unwelcome falls apart
When the film embraces the more supernatural aspects is where I struggled the most. Towards the end of the film, it felt like the story took a hard left into the weird and cringy. Really it was only the last 15 or so minutes that caused me to raise my eyebrows at the pure ridiculousness of it.
Those last few minutes didn’t fit with the rest of the film and felt added in for shock value rather than any actual necessity for the story. Everything that led up to that point was an excellent psychological thriller, one that I would watch many times over. The ending was a full immersion into the world of the red caps and how that impacts the humans around them. Both ideas could work for film, but being jumbled together didn’t feel totally cohesive.
The use of lighting in the film was jarring as well. At times the skies looked incredibly artificial, with brilliant lights that screamed studio. While it did give the film an ethereal feel, it didn’t come off right in the parts that were supposed to be from a real-world perspective. Not that it’s something that was so blatant that I couldn’t enjoy the film, but it was something that feel off, adding to the air of uneasiness that percolates throughout.
Even with the ending being a little wonky, I enjoyed Unwelcome for the most part. It was more suspenseful horror than grotesque, although a few scenes teetered on that edge. I found the story to be enjoyable, with John-Kamen and Booth delightful in their roles. Unwelcome was reminiscent of films such as Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which blended the fairy tale with real life. While it may not be on the exact same level as Del Toro’s piece, it gave me the same feelings inside, which helped me to feel content.
My rating for the film:
★★★ / ♥♥♥
If you’re a fan of horror, then Unwelcome should be on your radar when it arrives in theaters this Friday for AMC’s Thrills & Chills and on digital March 14. Are you interested in watching this film? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of The Winchesters season 1 finale!