The myth of the fear dearg (pronounced like “far darrig”) aka red cap or, more literally, red man, is prolific in Irish mythology. Much like the fairies who hide in the woods so they can steal babies and replace them with changelings–as seen in Corin Hardy’s wonderful The Hallow–the red caps are practical jokers who cause havoc for any unwitting humans who encroach upon their territory. Unwelcome, the latest offering from Northern Irish filmmaker Jon Wright (Grabbers), uses the potentially fascinating history of the red caps as set dressing for a much less captivating, and far nastier, tale of home invasion. To describe it as a missed opportunity would be a vast understatement.
When we first meet them, Maya and Jamie (Hannah John-Kamen and Douglas Booth) are a young couple living in London who have just discovered that they’re expecting a baby. We know they’re in it for the long haul because Maya is seen peeing with the door open but, weirdly, bathroom stuff is kind of a recurring motif in Unwelcome (one of many bizarre choices that include but are not limited to reducing one of our greatest living actors to a spit-flecked cliché). Mixed-race couples are still sadly rare in horror movies, but Wright and his co-screenwriter Mark Stay aren’t terribly interested in delving into the kind of issues they might face. They don’t really give Maya and Jamie much depth at all, with each reduced to one-line descriptors like “man who desperately wants to assert his dominance” and “woman who is heavily pregnant.”
Jamie is menaced by hoodies when he pops out to get some celebratory Prosecco, and after telling them where to go, he’s followed home and beaten to a bloody pulp while a terrified Maya watches, clutching her belly. It’s quite a nasty opening and incredibly jarring considering this is supposedly a story about little goblins in red hats running riot, but disappointingly it sets the tone for the whole thing. A few months after this unfortunate incident, Maya and Jamie relocate to middle-of-nowhere Ireland where his deceased aunt lived in a crumbling country pile that has been left to him in the will. Unwelcome was shot in London, but much of the action appears to have been captured on a sound-stage because there’s a noticeable echo during scenes set in and around the house itself, where most of the movie takes place.
Early on, when the central couple first learns about the red caps, Jamie remarks: “Leprechauns? I love it, it’s so Irish!” which seems to suggest he and Maya are going to be the villains of the piece, especially when they don’t heed the locals’ warnings about the dastardly creatures. But the Brits are actually the heroes and, in a movie set in Ireland that uses our mythology as a paper-thin backdrop for meaningless violence, this is a cardinal sin. Maybe it would be okay if there was any attention whatsoever paid to the local townspeople, but they barely get a look in, and only one of them is killed, which begs the question–have the red caps never emerged from the forest before? Do they only target outsiders? And where are their red hats and/or coats!?
Unwelcome traffics predominantly in ignorant, damaging stereotypes about Irish people, from the lascivious drunk to the superstitious old woman who doesn’t understand boundaries until she’s literally told “someone tried to kill me in my own home.” Most egregious are the Whelans, a family of builders who are tasked with fixing the roof and doing other odd jobs around the house. Led by living legend Colm Meaney, the foursome descends upon Maya and Jamie’s new home and immediately sets about blatantly disrespecting both it and them. There’s a lengthy sequence of one man noisily using their toilet, something which is highlighted by Maya later upon finding the poo in question and being disgusted by it (just to really double down). Speaking of disgusting, this young man also finds her vibrator in an adjacent drawer, sniffs it, and then licks it. There’s absolutely no justification to include scenes like this. They don’t add anything to the plot aside from establishing that the family are all bad people, which robs the story of any tension since it’s immediately clear what they’re capable of.
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Poor Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, so fantastic in Derry Girls, is lumbered with delivering stupid lines in a patchy accent that are intended to be shocking but are just teenage boy humor. The family was likely originally written as all men, but the filmmakers assumed that including a woman would make it less icky or give their story some points for progressiveness. But, notably, O’Donnell’s fate is considerably grimmer and more drawn out than the rest of the lads so any goodwill they were trying to engineer is swiftly undone. Meaney fares slightly better, and he’s clearly having a great time demanding everybody call him Daddy even outside of his own children, but Meaney’s performance is also kind of terrible just because there’s nowhere for it to go. He starts at a ten and stays there, resorting to screaming most of his lines by the end. There’s no pathos to be gained from his familial relationships either, since no attempt is made to humanize any of the Whelans.
Maya and Jamie are the only characters who are even minimally fleshed out, though their motivations are ambiguous and border on bizarre when it comes to venturing into the woods alone while heavily pregnant, for instance. It’s also unclear whether either of them holds down a regular job. For any Irish viewers, listening to a couple of Brits trying to pronounce “fear dearg” is akin to torture, but at least it suits the gross vibes. This movie is scary in an Eden Lake kind of way, which is certainly a choice for a flick about little goblins creating chaos in a country house. Thus, Unwelcome is tonally all over the place, with a handful of misguided attempts at humor–including a hilariously on point reaction to the outsiders entering the local pub–that are almost immediately undercut, as though the filmmakers were concerned that too many jokes would take away from their overall point about…home-based violence? The dangers of trusting strangers? Honestly, who knows (or cares)?
The creature design, which is a mixture of practical and computer-generated effects, is impressive but we don’t actually get to see that much of it over the course of the movie. There’s one memorable shot of a tiny hand reaching through a letterbox, but otherwise the red caps are glimpsed here and there rather than shown in all their glory. They’re also not the primary antagonists, which is a major misstep in a movie like this, which relies on our curiosity to sell us on such an outlandish premise. Home invasion is an overstuffed sub-genre, which makes the decision to focus on that element of the story even more baffling especially since there’s no unique angle here. The scariest shot in the whole movie, in fact, is one of the Whelans peeping through the bathroom window which, in case it’s not abundantly clear, has nothing to do with the bloody red caps.
Otherwise, Unwelcome is mean-spirited and cruel for the sake of it rather than entertainingly grisly, with the requisite attempted rape thrown in there seemingly just so Wright and Stay can check another box off their list of things that make 4Chan denizens salivate. The score is Marco Beltrami-lite and doesn’t fit with the tone, while the deaths are impressively vicious but bear little weight since we don’t get to know anybody and it’s clear the protagonists aren’t ever in any real danger. We can’t even cheer for the Whelans perishing because they’re such out-and-out baddies from the very beginning. If only the whole movie had the campy energy of the blood-soaked finale which, in keeping with everything that’s come before, seems to have been lifted from a different, better movie. Save yourself some time (since this is also a long one) and watch The Hallow instead. It may have been made by a Brit, but at least Hardy knew what he had.
WICKED RATING: 3/10
Director(s): Jon Wright
Writer(s): Mark Stay, Jon Wright
Stars: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Colm Meaney, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell
Release date: March 10, 2023 (theaters), March 14, 2023 (digital)
Run Time: 104 minutes