Remember that time during the 80’s when it seemed like you couldn’t bloody move for movies featuring diminutive little monsters attacking good, simple folk with brattish glee? Well Jon Wright, director of Grabbers and Robot Overlords, certainly does as he single handedly attempts to revive the sub-genre with Unwelcome, a slice of rural horror that follows in the tiny footsteps of Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Charlie Band’s Ghoulies and Troll as Hannah John-Kamen and Douglas Booth’s expecting couple leave the crime-strewn streets of London behind as they attempt to start in new life in Ireland after being left a house in a relative’s will.
Of course, no one in a movie these days can head into a rural area without running into some sort of human presence with Men, In The Earth and many other title stubbonly insisting that the “old ways” are waiting just beyond the woods, but Unwelcome seeks to add a sizable human menace too.
Literally suffering a brutal home invasion by thugs mere minutes after discovering that they’re going to have a baby, young couple Jamie and Maya mercifully manage to leave the dangerous streets of London behind when Jamie is left a house in rural Ireland after his great-aunt dies in the her scenic back garden. Initially overjoyed to be away from the oppressive grey of inner city life to being driving through the endless green pastures of the emerald isle, the couple soon find that bullys and thugs aren’t just localised to a London estate when they hire the Whelan family to do repairs on their new home.
Everyone else in the village seems fine, especially Maeve, a friend of Jamie’s aunt, but even she hurriedly insists that Maya continues the ritual the old woman performed every day and leave out a blood offering for the Far Darrig, a mythical race of flesh eating goblin creatures that are commonly referred to as Red-caps.
Bizarre traditions aside, that night of the home invasion has deeply affected Jamie in ways he hasn’t managed to process yet and his short temper and need to prove himself a fight and protector not only clashes with his peaceful nature, but it leads to a fair bit of tension with the Whelan’s.
The family, led by the tyrannical, abusive “Daddy” and made up of his kids, Aisling, Killian and the gigantic, but simple, Eoin, go from petty theft and leaving floaters in their toilet to offences of a far more serious nature when Eoin misinterprets Maya’s kindness for something else, but is stopped by the Red-csps who turn out to be just as real as they are violent.
As the Whelans want retribution for their fallen kin and Maya and Jamie find themselves in yet another home invasion situation, their only hope is to call on the knife wielding goblins who live in the forrest – but to call on them is to invoke a terrible price.
I have to be honest, I was hoping for great things from Unwelcome mainly because I’m a fan of Jon Wright’s booze-laden horror comedy, Grabbers (think Father Ted meets Tremors) and I was hoping for more of the same. However despite stealing liberally from Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (it has virtually the exact same set up) and exploring similar themes of repressed male rage after a traumatic experience as David Bruckner’s The Ritual, the film Unwelcome curiously most resembles is Sam Peckenpah’s Straw Dogs. While this is pretty hefty stuff for a movie about little, knife waving humunculi running around while causing all manner of murderous mischief, the main result of Wright boldly skewing far darker than Grabbers or Robot Overlords is that we end up with something of a bold, but a tonal mess that gets tangled within it’s more serious points when all you want is a monsoon of mini-monsters.
The cast mostly performs well with Hannah-John Kamen’s gutsy mother-to-be ably selling a lot of the carnage and inner turmoil as she weathers back-to-back invasions from London thugs, Irish bullies and a bunch of imps that like leaving severed heads in carrier bags and apparently all you have to do to summon Colm Meaney these days is write “belligerent, abusive, Irish patriarch” on a script and he just turns up of his own accord. The actors playing his kids are up to the challenge too with welcome appearances from Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Derry Girls) and Kristian Nairm (Hodor from GOT) to make the Whalen family truly odious. However, somewhat offsetting the mood is Douglas Booth’s struggling Jamie who chooses to bizarrely channel Jack Whitehall while trying to explore his characters lack of self-worth while proving to be ineffectual when protecting his wife. Trying to balance a performance that denotes a certain lack of perceived “masculinity” can be tough and can often drift into the realms of annoying even if the themes of trauma are very real, but while the movie makes few good points, Booth often comes across as too whiny in order to be anywhere near as effective as his co-star.
The rather serious nature of the ongoing PTSD between the two leads also offset the comedy too, making the more goofy, fantastical elements rub awkwardly against scenes of attempted rape or a pregnant Maya taking boots to the ribs from various assailants, making you genuinely unsure to how you’re supposed to feel at any given moment.
And then, seemingly after an eternity, the Red-caps finally arrive and while their giggly, spiteful presence is a little too late to save matters, they still prove to be a gaggle of beguiling little shits that invoke the best things about those pint-sized creature features from the 80’s. Coming up knee high to the human cast and babbling things like “Silly billy!” at people as they fling their little daggers at them like crazed knife throwers, they are quite the little marvels. Not obviously apparent how the FX boffins managed to realise the cruel little fuckers (I’m guessing blue screened full-sized people in costume with CGI’ed faces, but don’t quote me), they are certainly memorable enough when they finally get to stretch their little legs and launch an attack on the invading Whalen family and inflict some nicely graphic bloodletting. But even the odd spot of good natured disembowlment and throat slashing (not to mention a legitimately out-of-the-blue downbeat ending) isn’t enough to wrestle the writhing tone into a more cohesive experience.
But inbetween the traumatic subplot (genuinely upsetting) and the creature carnage (belated fun), there’s just enough fun stuff here to make Unwelcome a welcome return for cinematic tiny terrors, however, this coming of the Red-caps is more Ghoulies than Gremlins if you know what I mean.