On its surface, Unwelcome is the kind of film that would lure any horror and/or thriller aficionado into its clutches. A story about a paranoid pregnant woman and her spouse having to serve creatures of the forest who threaten to enter their idyllic home certainly sounds like a win. Who among us can resist a creepy creature feature with a heavy dose of paranoia, blood offerings, and fish-out-of-water tension? No one, surely. Unwelcome attempts to wrangle all of these elements with a dash of (possibly unintended at times?) comedic relief. And, in many ways, trips and falls down the runway before making a decent landing in its final minutes.
Directed by Grabbers Jon Wright, this folk horror flick follows Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and her kindhearted boyfriend Jamie (Douglas Booth). The London couple’s joy over discovering her pregnancy soon takes a turn after a brutal attack in their apartment. Months later, they relocate to a lush rural area in Ireland to move into Jamie’s newly inherited home, thanks to his Aunt Maeve’s passing.
It seems like a convenient blessing for the duo. That is, until they realize this place is hella weird in more ways than one. The people are aggressively strange, including a group of contractors hired to renovate the home as well as Maeve’s old friend. The latter spends time with the couple, revealing that there’s a caveat to owning this specific house. They must deliver a blood offering to the Red Caps who live in the forest every night without fail. (For those who don’t know Irish folklore, a Red Cap is a killer goblin, fae, dwarf, etc. who soaks its hat in the blood of its victims.) If they don’t do it, things can get ugly.
And it takes far too long for 1) things to get ugly and 2) for us to get a goblin reveal. The first half of Unwelcome is a repetitive bore as things constantly get spelled out in dialogue to reinforce its themes. Yes, we understand that Maya and Jamie are sensitive, kind people and therefore targets for the nastier humans among us. They are, in fact, unwelcome (roll credits!) everywhere they go. We understand that without several scenes of annoyingly surface-level interactions/information dumping that do little work towards advancing the story, character development, or crafting palpable tension. (It is worth noting that both John-Kamen and Booth are able to craft solid performances out of this messy pile.)
Unwelcome flirts with issues like our perceptions of what is “masculine,” how parenthood changes us, regional/social tensions, and anxiety, but doesn’t firmly engage with them nor successfully weave them into its narrative. Its tone is also unsettling as it messily slips between (unfunny) awkward comedy, tense drama, and physical brutality.
Once Maya begins to explore the possibilities (and dangers) of the woods, the film begins to gain traction as a horrifying truth reveals itself. At this point, things take quite the baffling turn that is either bizarrely entertaining or profoundly disappointing, depending on what lens you choose. While Unwelcome‘s marketing doesn’t clearly point towards it being a horror comedy, the film’s third act certainly leans in that direction.
Sometimes, it feels intentional, considering the gorily fun practical effects and very delightful puppet-esque appearance of the Red Caps in the style of Gremlins. Both fit in well with the overall aesthetic atmosphere of the film, which often looks like a stage play set. Pair this with silly Red Caps dialogue and over-the-top acting antics and, well, you may find an occasional chuckle. (Still, it pales in comparison to Wright’s horror-comedy darling Grabbers.) But, even looking at its first two acts, I suspect that many viewers will find this shift jarring and baffling. It wants to strike a balance of levity and terror, but cannot keep its feet on that thin line.
However, the film’s final moments make for a surprisingly satisfying end. It gives Maya (and by extension Jamie) a new sense of power, importance, and agency that they sorely lacked. Blood and rain pour as Maya emerges into a new sense of self and womanhood. A newly minted mother in more ways than one with the ability to shift circumstances according to her will. This would perhaps resonate more if they felt like fully realized characters; however, I respect the bold and unexpected conclusion. But, considering Unwelcome’s chaotic tonal shifts, uneven pacing, and underwhelming script, that ending certainly doesn’t feel earned.
Unwelcome will hit AMC Theaters on March 8 as a part of its “Thrills and Chills” lineup. It will be available digitally on March 14.