Posted in Diablo Joe Reviews by Neal at 18:54, Mar 21 2023
review by Diablo Joe
Director Jon Wright’s 2012 monster comedy “Grabbers” was a fun, tongue-in-cheek piece of work that rang the bells on all counts. Breezy, audacious, and irreverent, it also delivered the scares in all the right places, some terrific characters, and a fun story. Wright’s latest film, the Irish folk horror “Unwelcome,” a cautionary tale not to ignore the old ways, seems to take a much darker tact.
Urbanites Maya and Jamie inherit a home in rural Ireland. The pair, expecting their first child, hope it will prove to be an antidote to the stress of London life. Maya is informed that the house comes with a particular condition that must be met lest they invoke the ire of the “powrie,” or “red caps,” mythical goblins who can bring favor or misfortune. But Maya and Jamie find that some of the locals may be less appeasable than even the faerie folk.
“Seems” to take a darker tact is the impression that Wright and cowriter Mark Stay give the audience for the film's first half. A tremendously successful sense of foreboding and ominous dread pervades “Unwelcome’s” first two acts. When her neighbor tasks Maya with leaving a nightly offering to the red caps, Maya brushes off the importance of the act with increasingly disastrous results. And a family of local ne’er-do-wells reveals themselves to be equally dangerous to the budding family. But then “Unwelcome” takes a very sharp turn in tone and feel. As the film finally reveals the red caps to the audience, the film becomes less folk-horror-dread and more akin to the twisted, dark humor of “Gremlins.”
It’s a sudden, abrupt change in tenor that comes with increased liberties with the movie’s expectation of its viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The local baddies go from menacing to downright ludicrously homicidal, becoming exploitation-era maniacs in a manner that seems out of place in contrast with the first part of the picture.
The cast rolls with this transition dutifully, playing both tones to the best of their skills. Hannah John-Kamen (recognizable as Ghost in Marvel’s “Ant-Man”) and Douglas Booth are excellent as our young couple. John-Kamen has the toughest of jobs in changing her character’s essential function as the story evolves, and she handles it better than might be expected. The always excellent Colm Meany is, well, excellent as always. Often cast in warm, paternal roles, Meany proves he can live up to his last name should the story call for it. Kristian “Hodor” Nairn almost seems to be forced to ape his famous “GOT” character as Meaney’s imposing, simpleton son. Wright leaves us to wonder if Nairn, relegated to grunting through most of his early appearances, has been cast as mute once again. Thankfully, his later scenes assure us otherwise.
For those who can accept the film’s tonal shift, the onslaught of the red caps makes for some excellent and gory practical effects. There’s plenty of blood and mayhem, and the powrie themselves are colorfully depicted, if not quite as scary as promised to be. With what appears to be a mix of camera trickery, oversized sets, and modern digital compositing, the goblin-folk are convincing. But, like so many legends, they pale somewhat compared to their reputation, and they often seem more mischievous than genuinely malevolent.
Wright and cinematographer Hamish Doyne-Ditmas have given rural Ireland an unusual golden glow. Was this meant to evoke the more enchanted nature of the story? If so, it only partially succeeds. Sometimes it suggests that desired magical quality, but at others, the “magic-hour” hues and lighting strike one as stagey and artificial. And at worse, some scenes veer dangerously close to “Top Gun” stylishness enough that one might expect shirtless Tom Cruise to dive into frame for a volleyball save.
“Unwelcome” is a film that suffers most from missed opportunities. The promise of the first two-thirds could have made for a dark folk horror tale, with its goblin beasties providing a fresh element to the mix. But it almost seems Wright and Stay painted themselves into a corner and didn’t know how best to write their way out. Instead, they left their audience with a disorienting third act that many will find less than welcome.
This devil of a reviewer gives “Unwelcome” 2.5 out of 5 imps.