Throwback monster movies are something of a mixed bag. When successful, they can be a total blast—thankfully, this is the case with co-writer/director Jon Wright’s latest feature Unwelcome, a goblin-addled take on Irish folk horror. Wright, whose previous projects include supernatural slasher The Tormented and alien-monster feature Grabbers, easily finds a careful balance of dramatic stakes and gleeful fun. It certainly helps to have a lead couple led by two very likable actors with excellent chemistry. In this case, that means Douglas Booth and Hannah John-Kamen, who both deliver memorably specific performances that left me craving more. The second Unwelcome‘s signature goblins show up, the movie becomes a non-stop thrill ride virtually impossible not to enjoy.
Maya (John-Kamen) and Jamie (Booth) have been desperately trying to have a baby together. Just when the pregnancy test finally comes up positive, a terrifying, visceral home invasion nearly cuts both of their lives short. The horrifying event would appear the perfect catalyst to send them running for the hills; as chance would have it, Jamie is set to inherit the land of his Aunt Maeve in rural Ireland. Jamie tries not to appear too happy, as this has only been made possible by the sudden death of Maeve. They promptly relocate from their urban nightmare without hesitation. The home is practically a fairy tale abode, though it needs immediate attention to the roof. There are a number of little quirks about the property, but none are as pressing as the ancient wood of their new backyard.
A kindly woman who helps set them up with the place insists that they continue Maeve’s backyard tradition. Small little goblin men who go by many names, from the Red Cats to the “little people” to their actual Irish mythology names, the Far Darrig, need to be fed daily. A blood offering must be left for them, lest they will become ravenous and potentially harmful. Of course, neither Jamie nor Maya believe any of this superstitious mumbo jumbo, but Maya does agree to honor Maeve’s wishes.
By this point, Maya is already deeply pregnant. The townspeople generally seem quite nice, and the duo hire a family crew to fix their roof up. Things appear to be going swimmingly enough, at least at first. Unbeknownst to the couple, the people they have hired all appear to be judgmental, lazy, abrasive, or just plain bizarre. One demands to be called “daddy” at all times, while another is the abused, oafish reject of the family. The brother/sister duo is the most troublesome, actively insulting Maya and especially Jamie every chance they get.
Just over an hour into the movie, we see the Far Darrig for the very first time. Their initial appearance is thankfully a very memorable one that completely changes the course of the entire third act of Unwelcome for the better. Creature design appears mostly practical in nature—to me, they evoke the monsters of a bygone era seen in such horror classics as Leprechaun and Rumpelstilskin. As their gory carnage is let loose, director Jon Wright discovers the film’s hilarious sweet spot.
Unwelcome was one of the biggest surprises of the year for me so far. Though we are only in February, this Irish horror treat definitely stole my heart and offered it up for sacrifice. Booth plays the manic, horrified husband while John-Kamen is a headstrong female type on the cusp of insanity. Both are haunted by the trauma of their past, and this facet separates Unwelcome from the pack. Early on, the couple vows it will always be them against the world, a theme revisited frequently. The film’s final frame will no doubt divide its audience, but I have to commend Wright for sticking to his vision. If anything, the title is a bit of a misnomer—I never once felt Unwelcome as the waves of throwback-monster-movie familiarity washed over me, blended wonderfully with Irish folklore.
Don’t let the Far Darrig feel Unwelcome when the film comes to AMC Theaters’ Thrills and Chills Lineup on March 8th, followed by a digital release on March 14th.