Design a site like this with
Get started

Unwelcome (2023)

Well, I just saw Unwelcome, and although it’s only January, it’s a hot contender for my worst film of 2023. I take back every hurtful thing I said about Halloween Ends. I was but a spoilt, callow youth when I let loose my bile on that innocent picture. I did not know how good I had it. I don’t think that I’ve ever walked out on a movie, at least not in the cinema, but I came close here. What on Earth did Kim Newman, a great horror writer and critic, see in this piece of shit when he said that the “suspense works and the mix of grue, cruelty and eccentric wit is distinctive”?

Nonetheless, since it’s polite to start with a positive, that’s what I’ll do: veteran Irish actor Colm Meaney is genuinely effective and believable as a thuggish Irish patriarch. Even at almost 70, he’s an imposing and brutal presence. The commitment that he brings to lines like ”if he touched your woman, I’ll punish him MY way” belongs in a much better film with a greater understanding of its characters and themes.

The one other positive I have is that the final sequence is well-staged and picturesquely macabre. The film of course ruins it by cutting to one of the protagonists crying out in a manner that’s not believable, but the imagery works in a deliberately gaudy and stagy fashion. That’s clearly a part that’s taken directly from the folkloric tale that the film’s based on, and divorced from the utterly ridiculous set of characters and situations that have been set up to contain it, it’s compelling.

The story is that a handsome young couple has just found out that they’re expecting when a gang of thugs breaks into their London flat and brutally beat them, Death Wish-style. Good fortune, then, that the man’s elderly aunt dies and leaves them her home in a remote Irish village where everyone knows each other’s name. But when they arrive they learn that the old woman left a “blood sacrifice” of shop-bought meat each night at the property’s perimeter, for the “redcaps”, little men that live in the woods… A secondary plot then develops with Meaney as a local builder, hired to fix up the house, who insists on being called “Daddy” and is assisted by his three loutish adult children.

The script for all this is one of the most appalling and tin-eared that I’ve heard delivered in a while. “Your auntie left us her house” we hear over footage of a car driving through a pastoral scene (bizarrely, the same shot is used later in the film to imply that the characters are fleeing, despite the next shot establishing that they’re still in the village.) “That is a good thing and we will have a good place to recover from our trauma.” Not a direct quote, but might as well be. The next conversation then repeats the same information, making the previous exchange pointless.

Characters don’t talk like human beings. At one point, apropos of nothing, the woman just starts relating the story of a previous abortion to a Catholic priest. I may try something similar sometime. Show up for a tour of a church and start telling the priest that Bible be damned, I do love bum sex and heavy metal. The exchange might have had a point if it was to establish the hostility of the town and its archaic traditions to this young, modern couple, but the priest is remarkably tolerant.

The only villainous human characters among their new neighbours are “Daddy” and his clan, the Wheelans, which just confuses an already badly constructed and written story. The village has no sense of reality to it, at no point feeling like an actual community of like-minded individuals. The film is drawing for its setting on the ‘60s shocker Straw Dogs (which Unwelcome’s makers have cited as an influence), especially in a profoundly ill-judged plot point about an attempted rape carried out by a mentally disabled character.

Straw Dogs was about another young couple who come to a rural UK village and end up menaced by rapey locals, including a man with special needs. I’m not a fan of Straw Dogs, it’s pretty sleazy and disgusting, but it at least had consistent themes about the borders of civilisation and the social contract and toxic gender roles. Unwelcome likes the idea of those themes, I guess… but has no clue what to do with them. Since the Wheelans are the only villagers that are truly hostile to the protagonists and are regarded as outsiders by their neighbours, the title “Unwelcome” doesn’t even make sense. Wouldn’t “Redcaps” have been a better title, or “Mother Redcap”, given the maternal theme?

Presumably to justify its title and what it THINKS it’s about, the film tries to bring up a thing about Irish resentment of English settlers, but it’s so nonsensical (as the guy says, his aunt – an Irish local – left him the house, making him its rightful heir) that it ends up coming out half-hearted. As well as like a lazy and facile attempt to add motivation to utterly cardboard antagonists. Once again, only the Wheelans make these remarks, none of the rest of the village. Maybe the moral is to not hire builders who are obvious psychopaths.

Dialogue in general varies between stupid and expositional, but since the characters act like morons, I suppose it’s of a piece. A heavily pregnant woman who’s already been brutally beaten decides to chase a dog through thick woods that she’s unfamiliar with, for example. There’s so much wrong with the story and how it’s told that I’m honestly floundering in my attempts to cover it all. The basic setup with the redcaps and their blood sacrifices doesn’t even make sense. The expectant mother won’t allow a harmless old lady to enter her garden each evening to deliver the meat in place of the late aunt, because that’s too triggering given her experience in London, but WILL allow a gang of lumbering rapists to smash windows, leave shit in the toilet, and bully her husband, under the guise of them doing up her house. And why can’t the old woman, I don’t know, APPROACH THE PERIMETER FROM THE OTHER FUCKING SIDE? Gordon Bennett…

Going back to the Straw Dogs influence, it has to be said that this is a film where almost from the moment a young woman finds out she’s pregnant, she’s thrown across tables, threatened with knives, sexually assaulted, screamed at and abandoned by her husband in the wake of this latter trauma (don’t ask), brutally beaten just after her water breaks… and for what? I’m not offended by it (I wouldn’t give the movie that credit), but it’s like the rule of thumb about using rape in a story: if it’s essentially just window-dressing, it shouldn’t be there. No one ever brings up the possibility of this woman having a miscarriage, or the child coming out damaged, despite the constant physical and mental trauma that she’s subjected to.

The film is possibly aware of its potential for misogynistic readings, so another of the themes it tries to deliver and then just allows to sag is toxic masculinity. The husband is a sensitive bloke, unused to violence, so of course he’s repeatedly emasculated until at one point the film teases us with the possibility of him being raped, his attacker saying: “you fight like a girl, you get fucked like a girl.” Classy. Not that the film would go any further than that line. The concept of rape is just there as window-dressing, a little nudge, a little tease…

With regards to its ineffectuality as a horror film, it doesn’t help that it’s shot like a parody. The cinematographer was probably going for a dusky look, representing the mystical hinterland between night and day, but it just makes everything look like Shaun of the Dead, a film that was supposed to be funny. Again, the staginess works for the climax, but for the rest of the film, it just looks cheap and almost televisual.

And I haven’t even gotten to the supernatural element yet… Suffice it to say, the redcaps look and sound like they belong in a parody. Not that they’re badly designed, per se, but they’re just in need of a story that’s better able to utilise their Gremlin-like quality.

So, yeah, that’s Unwelcome. Like if Straw Dogs and Gremlins came together. Without any clue as to why or how.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: