A couple moving from England to Ireland find that some of the local mythology needs to be taken seriously...
Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men (2022) may be the folk horror movie with the loudest buzz right now, but even if Unwelcome fits more straightforwardly into genre conventions, it’s a film of originality and conviction that deserves to be taken more seriously than a glance at the synopsis might suggest. Director Jon Wright’s much-quoted characterisation of Unwelcome as a fusion of Gremlins (1984) and Straw Dogs (1971) is spot-on, as both came to mind while watching before I was aware of his comparison; and while there’s more to it than that, his film manages to introduce some highly fanciful elements into an often tough and uncomfortably realistic story without destroying it.
The premise is one of the most familiar in modern horror: the couple moving to a new home, hoping for better things, and discovering unexpected darkness inside. Examples are countless, but with its Irish setting and the significance of woodland, Unwelcome calls to mind Lee Cronin’s The Hole in the Ground (2019), while the monstrous locals are reminiscent of Alex Garland’s Men (2022). Audiences are likely to be split on the handling of the supernatural when it finally appears in Unwelcome—as the practical effects, while well-done, seem old-fashioned and there’s a goofy quality to the creatures which is simultaneously silly and chilling–but there’s more than enough humanistic horror on display here.
Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) are a young couple living in London. Her pregnancy test is positive; he heads to the convenience store on their housing estate to buy alcohol-free Prosecco to celebrate; three guys hanging around outside taunt him and then, when he snaps back at them, follow him back to the flat he shares with Maya. A shockingly brutal home invasion sequence follows, but as the sirens of police cars grow louder, Wright cuts to an almost completely still and pastoral scene of an old woman lying on the ground, attended by paramedics, in front of a stone wall with a wooden door.
We don’t know it yet, but this wall and the door will prove pivotal to Unwelcome. For now, what matters is that the old woman was Jamie’s aunt, and she’s left him her house in Ireland in her will. We follow Maya and Jamie as they take the ferry across the Irish Sea—abandoning London after that awful experience—and see the house from overhead at first, thick woods behind it, shut off by that wall. We also meet a neighbour, Maeve (Niamh Cusack), who explains the wall’s significance: Jamie’s aunt “was a funny one” and “believed in the old ways”. Specifically, she left a daily blood offering in the wall for the “little people”, aggressive denizens of the forest known as red caps or fear dearg.
Maya vows to continue the tradition if only to keep Maeve happy, and for a short while the couple is indeed unbothered by the fear dearg, though they have plenty of difficulty with a domineering local builder called Daddy Whelan (Colm Meaney) and his family. The human and woodland worlds slowly begin to converge, however, as a local man disappears, we hear about a missing child whose body was never found, and then a head turns up in a plastic bag…
The characters aren’t deeply explored but many are interesting enough, and persuasively performed. John-Kamen’s Maya and Booth’s Jamie seem both a little entitled and on edge after being attacked in London, a combination which makes him aggressive though she holds things together better. A recurrent motif is his “manly” act (promising to do DIY which he’s incapable of, for example), which comes across as only half-joking and suggests he may be uncomfortable with the knowledge she’s the stronger of the pair.
Meaney as Daddy Whelan (polite on the surface, but it’s clearly only surface, and sinisterly insistent on being called ‘Daddy’), along with Chris Walley and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell as his adult children, are satisfyingly nasty antagonists; never mind the fear dearg because Whelan’s daughter is actually more terrifying! Lalor Roddy and Finbar Lynch, as a local drunk and the parish priest respectively, contribute interesting support in very different ways.
Ireland itself, or rather the conflicts between Maya and Jamie’s expectations of Ireland and the reality, also looms in the background like a not-quite-welcoming character. Unwelcome isn’t just about moving from the city to the countryside, it’s specifically about moving to that country. The title may be an ironic reference to that word so beloved by the Irish tourism industry, Fáilte.
Early on the central couple ooh and aah (“my god, it’s so green!” he says; “everyone’s so nice here” she later observes), but it’s not long before Maeve is warning them the red caps are far from being jolly leprechauns: Ireland isn’t what you may think it is. Daddy Whelan’s children are aggressively anti-English, an attitude that does exist (albeit uncommonly) in Ireland and is rarely discussed. (Wright and co-writer Mark Stay have fun with this, too, in a well-staged pub scene where the bar at first seems as hostile as the Slaughtered Lamb in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London.)
Even the landscape and weather refuse to cooperate with the Emerald Isle’s cinematic conventions. It doesn’t rain once until the end of the movie, and though Ireland is one of the least forested countries in Europe, here it is un-Irish woods (not the much more obvious hills or coastline) that are presented as holding its dark heart, to such an extent that Unwelcome occasionally reminded me of Gaia (2021) or In the Earth (2021). Visually, too, Wright and his cinematographer Hamish Doyne-Ditmas avoid the soft-focus Irish clichés and opt instead for bold, strongly-coloured images, enhanced by production design and costumes. The score by Christian Henson, meanwhile, can be a tad overdone but has moments of grandeur and again avoids excessive ‘Oirishness’.
Unwelcome is for the most part neatly plotted and has some well-choreographed set pieces (despite one gaping hole where a fire, once started, seems forgotten). Not all of its twists and revelations are foreseeable, even the more outlandish elements of the climax have a certain power, and the way in which it turns the well-worn “horror in the new home” premise into a meta-joke about a decidedly unwelcoming Ireland might raise a smile, although whether making the fear dearg so droll was a wise move is questionable.
It’s a slight movie, to be sure, but there is imagination at work here; it never has the feel of paint-by-numbers as so many in this subgenre do.
IRELAND • UK | 2022 | 104 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Jon Wright.
writers: Mark Stay & Jon Wright.
starring: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Colm Meaney, Kristian Nairn, Chris Walley & Niamh Cusack.