UNWELCOME l Well Go USA | March 8, 2023
Starring: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Colm Meaney, Kristian Nairn
Directed By: Jon Wright
Unwelcome, directed by Irish-born "Grabbers" director Jon Wright, stars Hannah John-Kamen (Black Mirror, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Ready Player One) and Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent, Jupiter Ascending, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). A couple escapes their urban nightmare to the tranquility of rural Ireland only to hear stories of mysterious beings who live in the gnarled, ancient wood at the foot of their new garden. As warned by their new neighbors, in Irish lore the Redcaps will come when called to help souls in dire need of rescue, but it's crucial to remember that there is always a dear price to pay for their aid.
REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
Unwelcome has all the ingredients of a solid creature feature, that utilizes great craftsmanship to bring to life this terrifying vision, however leaves the audience waiting too long for the terror to be truly unleashed to be the entertaining horror film it could have been.
Horror films love to root themselves in the local mythology of the setting in which the story plays out, and it's always a good creative choice as history and mythology can help build the tension within the story. And this is what writer director Jon Wright and his co-writer Mark Stay do with their latest film, building a horrifying vision around redcaps in a rural Irish town. Wright and Slay know exactly what audiences want from a film like this, and while they deliver that creature mayhem, they also infuse the story with emotional gravitas to create a more impactful story to give true stakes to what could have merely been your run of the mill creature feature.
The film follows a young pregnant couple moving to a rural Irish town to the home they just inherited, still reeling from a violent attack they faced in their London flat months earlier. Their new home backs onto an ancient wood, which based on the local legend is the home of the mystical redcaps. Upon inheriting the home, the couple promises to leave out raw meat every night for the creatures to keep them at bay and from wreaking havoc amongst the townsfolk. However, Maya and Jamie are about to discover murderous and malevolent tendencies of the redcaps as they adjust to their new home.
There is no question as to the highlight of the film, which is the redcaps themselves and how they are brought to life on screen. Forgoing the use of CGI and instead relying on practical prosthetics and motion capture for facial expressions, the redcaps are the stuff of nightmares. The lifelike appearance and awkward movements of them creates a truly terrifying presence whenever they are on screen, reminiscent of the practical effects used to create Gremlins back in the 80s, both in appearance and in the redcaps overall attitude. The motion capture used to create the facial expressions captures what puppetry could not, bringing to life the mischievous nature of these creatures which truly has you on your toes as you never know what they will do next. This film is a prime example of how horror films need to bring to life their monsters, not through CGI which is not believable and does not create real stakes for the actors to interact with.
Thematically, the story revolves around violence and provides a truly interesting discussion of it. From the human side, we see the potential for violence with the intruders into Maya and Jamie’s flat in the opening sequence and the effect this has on them over the film. The redcaps become a manifestation for the potential for violence as a looming threat over the entire film, with the film’s final act delivering on that murderous mayhem you expect from such a story. But it is the way that the final act plays out that is the genius of the story, as it is truly unexpected, causing the audience to question humanity’s propensity for violence.
The final act is wickedly fun, in a truly twisted and gory sense, delivering what audiences seek from such a creature feature horror film. Though, at the same time, it takes too long for this uncontrollable chaos that is teased throughout the film to fully manifest, causing the first two acts to be a bit of a slog to get through at times. It would have truly benefited from a more major, earlier tease of the redcaps and their violence to satisfy the audience’s quench for bloodshed, rather than holding it all back until the film’s final thirty minutes. While it never makes Unwelcome a bad film, this pacing issue makes what could have been a great horror film merely a good horror film.
Benefiting the entire film is the lead performance of Hannah John-Kamen as Maya. John-Kamen does a wonderful job taking the audience on Maya’s emotional journey over the film, starting off in a place of true darkness as she is reeling from the attack she and her husband faced in their home. The attack is of such a violating nature as you should feel safe in your home, which is where John-Kamen begins building the character. But it is the way that John-Kamen moves Maya from this point, to fully embracing the violence encountered over the story as a positive in her life after it being a blackmark on her past that makes her performance so captivating. It truly is a startling character arc, ending with that disturbing final moment that John-Kamen plays perfectly, capturing the theme of the story and creating that twistedly perfect final shot. It’s just too bad the rest of the cast is not on John-Kamen’s level, as she is truly unmatched. It is not the cast’s fault, but more the characters they are given to portray, with Douglas Booth having a very bland character to play and Colm Meaney not having much depth to his character.
There is something truly special about Unwelcome and the uneasy feeling it creates in you as you watch it, even if it slightly fumbles the execution of a great concept by not being able to sustain the suspense over its run time. It’s a prime example of small scale filmmaking using practical effects to capture an emotionally resonant tale rather than being lost in the CGI spectacle that many larger films tend to do in this genre. Whether it be the outstanding practical effects that make the redcaps the creatures to haunt your nightmares for the next couple of nights, or the brilliant turn from Hannah John-Kamen in the lead role, there is so much to appreciate about Unwelcome in its craft of this chilling creature feature even if the pacing holds it back from being a truly great horror experience.