Parenthood, and especially motherhood, has always been a very popular topic for horror filmmakers. It’s perfect for giving your protagonists something to protect and it immediately raises the stakes of your film.
Horror has always been a genre that puts women in the centre of the narratives. Jon Wright’s film does the same as we follow Hannah John-Kamen’s Maya, but this is really a film about male anxieties and a very potent one too. Oh, and it’s also about goblins, but more on that a little later.
Maya and Jamie (Douglas Booth) have just found out they are expecting their first child. Jamie nips to the corner shop for some non-alcoholic bubbles, but is brutally attacked by a group of men, who then force entry to their home, leaving the couple rattled.
9 months later, as Maya’s due date is fast approaching, the couple leave the dangers of London and relocate to a peaceful, idyllic village in Ireland where Jamie has inherited a house. Bizarrely, they are instructed by a fellow villager to leave out a blood offering to the ‘Red Caps’.
Neither Maya or Jamie believes that the Red Caps are real and at this point, neither does the audience because there isn’t any evidence of them. For a very long time, there is no sign of the little buggers. Instead, Unwelcome is a pretty insightful look at PTSD and toxic masculinity.
Jamie, played with a frazzled energy by Booth, struggles admitting to himself he wasn’t able to protect his family. He’s faced with a similar situation as the Whelans, an obnoxious family of local builders led by Daddy Whelan, turn out to be offensive and vaguely threatening. There are fascinating shades of Straw Dogs here; Jamie must unleash something in himself and lean into his more primal senses in order to protect himself, but perhaps lose some of his humanity in the process.
Unwelcome also shared DNA with Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, another Irish set folk horror. Both work a great deal of folklore and fantasy into their horror narrative. Unwelcome evokes plenty of laughs as well whereas The Hallow is a much creepier affair, but both are equally effective.
John-Kamen’s Maya sometimes feels a little sidelined from the themes of Unwelcome. Although she seems like the more active protagonist and, like a true mama lion, will go to violent ends in order to protect her offspring, the script fails to give her enough to do in the middle act of the film.
And then there are the goblins and yes, there are goblins. Unwelcome is disappointingly light on the goblin action, but when it comes, it’s perfectly bonkers. It’s not every day you get a film with practical effects that’s this willing to be this silly with its creatures. They’re also vicious little shits, these Red Caps, and although inherently silly just by looks, they’re also totally terrifying.
Director Jon Wright doesn’t always nail the tonal shifts in Unwelcome, but for the most part, this is a very exciting new film in British genre filmmaking. How could you say no to a film in which Colm Meaney insists everyone calls him ‘Daddy’? Unwelcome works as a potent horror film with something to say about our modern anxieties and masculinity but like so many other films, it simply needed more goblins.
Unwelcome is in UK cinemas 27 January.