Director: Joe Wright
Notable Cast: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Jamie Lee O’Donnell, Chris Walley, Kristian Nairn, Colm Meaney, Niamh Cusack, Lalor Roddy
Having been a big fan of Grabbers, where drunkenness is the only way to fight off an alien invasion, my expectations for director Joe Wright’s latest horror comedy, Unwelcome, were reasonably high. To try and temper those expectations, I didn’t watch or dig into any of the promotional material for it and waited patiently for its release from our friends at Well Go USA.
While the balance of horror and humor in Unwelcome isn’t nearly as good as the previously mentioned Grabbers, it is one of the year's more offbeat and fascinating films. Mainly because, when this bad boy is boiled down to its bones, it’s basically Straw Dogs that happens to have the Far Darrig (they are NOT leprechauns) in it. Throw in a dash of Raimi-inspired slapstick horror along with some Italian gothic pops and it is a combination that should be as entertaining as it is batshit insane. Yet, as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the balance of tones, narrative buoyancy, and darker dramatic elements just cannot find their footing.
The tonal balance of Unwelcome is certainly thrown asunder by how dark and serious some of the subject matter is for its two lead characters, a couple looking to have their first child. The opening sequence, which features a relatively brutal and intense home invasion sequence, sets the mood for a nihilistic romp toward the rural countryside. The fact that the film seemingly starts to trace the footsteps of Straw Dogs, the Sam Peckinpah film that featured enough rural violence and negative feelings (it’s a good film though, I swear) to shake a stick at, doesn’t necessarily help when the dark comedy or other stylistic choices come in.
With a narrative that leans much darker than expected starts to unfold, the other aspects of Unwelcome that director Joe Wright is dabbling in attempt to work in conjunction with it. Namely, there is an unbelievable folk horror streak to the film that oftentimes resembles an old-school Italian gothic look and feel. Now, that might seem like a stretch, but the use of sets, very theatrical lighting, fantastical environments, and some heightened performances push the film into fable areas. Most of these, unfortunately, are at odds with the often-brutal realism of the character emotions and frustrating situations of the plot that sees a local family come to hate our young couple. Still, there’s a kind of theatrical nature to the visuals that does impress.
Now, about the Redcaps, aka the Far Darrig. The “little people” that adorn the poster are continually mentioned throughout the film as a kind of lurking promise is easily the best part of Unwelcome. Between the special effects, the off-beat humor of their interactions, and the general violence they bring to the fold when the Redcaps arrive the film immediately finds its tone and voice. Unfortunately, the film takes way too long unleashing them into this cinematic world, but once they pop up - Unwelcome finds its pace.
Unwelcome is a blissfully fun horror comedy romp when it’s hitting its stride, particularly in the third act, but it’s a film where all of its elements don’t necessarily work in conjunction. It has some solid performances from its leads, but a patchy script and scattered tone tend to undercut all the great elements at play. When the monster mayhem ensues in the third act, it’s delightful and the film ends on a gorgeously silly note that almost makes one forgive the broken road it takes to get there.