After a brutal home invasion in London—just after learning they’re finally expecting a much-wanted baby—a young couple sees a brighter future when they inherit a home in the Irish countryside. But not for nothing is this folk horror/psychological thriller/creature-feature blend titled Unwelcome.
Directed by Jon Wright (Grabbers) and written by Mark Stay, Unwelcome stars Hannah John-Kamen (Ava Starr/Ghost in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp and the upcoming Thunderbolts) as Maya, who’s nine months pregnant through most of the movie, and Douglas Booth (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) as her husband, Jamie. Their giddy excitement over moving into the quaint house once occupied by Jamie’s late Aunt Maeve doesn’t decrease even after they see what a fixer-upper it is, including a huge hole in the roof. And at first, they brush off the strange warning from local pub owner Niamh (Niamh Cusack), who insists they carry on a tradition kept by Maeve, and leave a daily “blood offering” for the “little people” or “Redcaps” believed to populate the forest adjacent to their property. Niamh is warm and welcoming, as is most of the rest of the community, but there’s real fear in her eyes as she impresses upon Maya that this is a task that must be done. Every day.
A movie less determined to wriggle under your skin might let that be the jumping-off moment for Unwelcome’s central conflict, especially as it shakes loose a little more information about the Redcaps, particularly their interest in babies. But for Maya and Jamie, who’re both suffering from PTSD after the harrowing attack in their old place, fairy-tale creatures are not the only element poised to make them continue to feel unsafe, even in their bucolic new surroundings. Desperate to get their house in order before their child arrives, they hire the only maintenance crew available on short notice; unfortunately for them, there’s a reason the Whelan family has such a wide-open schedule.
Though the critters of the forest never leave the periphery of the story, the Whelans soon become Unwelcome’s principle villains; in addition to their dubious quality of work, they help themselves to Jamie and Maya’s food, rifle through their private possessions, take a lot of weed-smoking breaks, and almost immediately start insulting and terrorizing the young couple, with Killian (Chris Walley) and Aisling (Derry Girls’ Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) leading the charge. The family patriarch, who insists even Maya and Jamie call him “Daddy,” is played by familiar character actor Colm Meaney, whose many credits include Chief Miles O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager; the hulking oldest son is played by Kristian Nairn (Game of Thrones, Our Flag Means Death). For a time, Unwelcome becomes an Irish version of Straw Dogs, a situation not helped by Jamie’s inherent “please fuck with me” energy—a blend of short-tempered bravado and cowardice that’s a magnet for bullies.
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Unwelcome plunges you right into feeling uncomfortable as hell with that brutal opening scene—and even in the early moments after the setting change, when Maya and Jamie are marveling “everyone’s so nice here,” the violence that’s affected their lives looms in the background. Once the Redcaps and the Whelans are introduced, handily ratcheting up the movie’s danger meter, every scene that follows palpably pulses with the potential for violence. While the movie has some salient points to make about masculinity, particularly of the toxic variety, and it does indeed come through with excellent creature-feature payoff (not to mention gore galore), Unwelcome’s greatest strength is Maya. She’s the fiercest pregnant character horror’s seen in awhile; instead of something that exists to make her seem more vulnerable, her condition gives her even more reason to go into battle. Played wonderfully by John-Kamen, Maya’s a women who’ll do all she can to keep the peace, even in the most tense and awful situations—until someone threatens her family, and then she’ll go to any extreme necessary to protect them.
Unwelcome opens as part of AMC Theaters’ “Thrills and Chills” line-up March 8; it hits digital March 14.
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