Grabbers director Jon Wright’s latest, Unwelcome, blends modernism with Irish mythology. Described in a pitch as “Gremlins meets Straw Dogs,” Unwelcome introduces the far darrig, tiny bloodthirsty fae also dubbed redcaps for their signature red hats. Yet Wright, who co-wrote with screenwriter Mark Stay, struggles to find a consistent tone. The emphasis on gritty home invasion thriller clashes with the lighter horror-comedy creature feature.
Elation turns to trauma when a pregnancy celebration between Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and her husband, Jamie (Douglas Booth), morphs into a harrowing home invasion nightmare. Jamie then conveniently inherits a house in rural Ireland, giving the couple the perfect opportunity to flee their dangerous London neighborhood. The locals are welcoming, though superstitious; Maya placates her neighbor (Niamh Cusack) with promises to continue the tradition of leaving proper blood sacrifices at the edge of their garden to appease the far darrig. Remembering to uphold her commitment becomes extra tricky for the pregnant Maya when contractor “Daddy” Whelan (Colm Meaney) and his adult children enter the equation. The Whelans’ intrusive nature while patching the roof leaves Maya torn between human and fae threats.
Wright bides his time when it comes to the pint-sized far darrig. Their presence is felt, not seen, for much of the runtime as Maya and Jamie’s struggles to adjust to their new surroundings take precedence. Putting the redcaps on the backburner doesn’t build anticipation so much as it exposes the haphazard approach to this tonally disjointed narrative. Unwelcome spreads itself thin as it attempts to set up the folklore behind the far darrig, the couple’s PTSD over their London attack, Jamie’s feelings of emasculation as emotional fallout, the abrupt lifestyle shift, and the Whelans’ open hostility toward the British couple. Only the Whelans seem to get enough room to breathe among the underdeveloped plot threads. Their antics dominate the entire second act, relegating protagonist Maya to the background of her own story.
Save for a few amusing editing choices signifying a sense of humor, Unwelcome keeps its comedy almost as hidden as the far darrig throughout most of the runtime. The intensity of the home invasion, followed by increasingly menacing Whelan behavior, keeps the tone hovering consistently around foreboding and serious. That makes it jarring when the third act dramatically shifts into an unrestrained creature feature where mischievous faes’ antics and dialogue match the bloodletting. As jolting as the transition into full-blown horror-comedy is, it begs the question of where this welcome energy was all along.
Though Unwelcome goes disappointingly too light on fae action, the techniques bringing them to life through VFX and practical means are commendable. Compositing and forced perspective, reminiscent of retro fare like The Gate, go far in ensuring these little goblin-like creatures have personality. Wright establishes a fairytale-like visual language leading up to their arrival, shifting from gloomy London to a sun-drenched emerald countryside.
A gonzo finale teases Unwelcome’s unrealized potential. Wright can’t bridge the glaring divide between Gremlins and Straw Dogs, leaving audiences with a mess of ideas that don’t seamlessly congeal into a coherent feature. Hannah John-Kamen tries her best to provide a winsome and level-headed heroine, even as the narrative skips a few steps getting her to ferocious mother. The creatures are fun, and their revelry toward violence entertains, though, which makes it more disappointing that Unwelcome prefers to flesh out its more uninteresting plot threads. There’s a fun creature feature nestled within a tonally disjointed, scattershot home invasion thriller that gives the title an unintended meaning.
Unwelcome heads to AMC theaters’ “Thrills and Chills” lineup on March 10 and Digital on March 14, 2023.