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After relocating to the Irish countryside, a young couple is menaced by murderous goblins.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jon Wright

Starring: Hannah John-Kamen, Douglas Booth, Colm Meaney, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Chris Walley, Kristian Nairn, Niamh Cusack

Unwelcome poster

"What happened to not perpetuating stereotypes?" one character asks of another in Jon Wright's Irish-set horror (comedy?) Unwelcome. Indeed. Most stereotypical depictions of Ireland have been the product of misty-eyed British and American filmmakers, who might claim Irish heritage but who have clearly never set foot in the country. I'm not sure what Wright's excuse is, as he's from just across the border in Northern Ireland, but his depictions of the Republic of Ireland are as bad, if not worse, than anything found in the films of John Michael "I'm real Oirish innit" McDonagh.

Wright scored an international hit with his 2012 Tremors on an Irish island comedy Grabbers. That film was beloved by international audiences, but for us in Ireland it was another cringey collection of drunken Irish stereotypes (listening to American podcasters talk of how charming and quaint they found the movie was maddening to my Irish ears). That said, Grabbers may well be responsible for the current wave of Irish horrors, so perhaps it was worth it to eventually get worthwhile Irish genre representation in the likes of A Dark Song and You Are Not My Mother.

Unwelcome review

Wright returns to Ireland with Unwelcome, and continues to trade in tone deaf stereotypes. But while Grabbers might be dismissed as a bit of fun, there's something malicious in Wright's depiction of an Irish Traveller-coded family. For those unfamiliar with the social dynamics of Ireland, Travellers are an ethnic group who live in caravans and are usually negatively stereotyped as thieves and violent criminals (see Guy Ritchie's Snatch for a particularly crude example). Wright does nothing to dismiss that stereotype here - his Traveller family, led by Colm Meaney's Daddy Whelan - are indeed thieves and violent criminals. Just to make things even more tone deaf, the heroes of Wright's film are English. It's not so much a case of "read the room" as "have you ever even entered the room?"

Our English protagonists are Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth), who discover the former is pregnant on the same night that their London council estate flat is terrorised by a gang of chavs who badly beat the couple. Maya and Jamie find a way out of the English capital when the latter's aunt dies and leaves her nephew her home in the Irish countryside. "It's so green," Jamie remarks in awe, because there's famously no grass in England.

Unwelcome review

Maya and Jamie fall instantly in love with the sizeable cottage they've inherited, but along with a hole in the roof it has another catch. Local pub landlady Maeve (Niamh Cusack) informs the couple that Jamie's aunt believed in "the little people." Not your common or garden harmless leprechauns mind, but the "fear dearg", malevolent little shits who will steal your baby if you don't leave them a blood offering in the form of a small slice of liver left at the bottom of the garden each night. Maya and Jamie agree to carry on this tradition to appease Maeve, but of course they fail to follow through, unleashing the fear dearg, who set their sights on the child Maya is soon to give birth to.

Right there we have the makings of a potentially fun horror romp in the vein of Gremlins and its various 1980s imitators. But Wright gets sidetracked with the introduction of the Whelan clan, whom Maya and Jamie employ to fix up the house. Along with the broadest "lazy Irish worker" stereotypes since Fawlty Towers, the Whelans are portrayed as a menacing bunch, even potential rapists. It seemed like we were in for a fun Irish riff on Gremlins, but instead we get a third-rate Straw Dogs knockoff. Booth's Jamie is a poor substitute for Dustin Hoffman's emasculated-to-the-point-of-cracking anti-hero, and the film never quite knows what to do with his character in terms of a study of modern masculinity. Along with Straw Dogs, Peter Weir's The Plumber feels like an influence on this distracting sub-plot, with Meaney's Daddy Whelan seeming to revel in testing the patience of his too-polite-to-complain employers, but Wright fails to extract any of the cringe-comedy that Weir mined so capably from the scenario.

Unwelcome review

Unwelcome is an odd duck. Wright clearly knows the stereotypes and cliches of the rural horror movie. At one point Jamie and Maya pay their first visit to the local pub, where they're initially met by silence from the locals in the manner of An American Werewolf in London, only for the locals to suddenly burst into applause. Yet ultimately Wright is happy to trade in some of the worst stereotypes surrounding not just Irish people, but rural dwellers in general. There was an opportunity here for Wright to be very Irish and take the piss out of everyone equally, critiquing the small-minded anti-Englishness that persists in some corners of Ireland while also mocking the ignorance of the English towards their neighbours, particularly those who like Jamie, insist on calling themselves Irish. Instead Wright consistently punches down, none more so than a subplot involving Daddy Whelan's mentally challenged adult son, whom Maya shows affection for only to receive his unwanted sexual attention. It's a mean-spirited turn in a movie that has been played largely for laughs up to that point.

When the fear dearg do eventually show up, after what feels like an age, it's a late reminder of the monster movie we might have gotten. Looking a lot like the goblin that terrorised a young Drew Barrymore in Stephen King anthology Cat's Eye, they're a wonderful creation of physical effects and a reminder of just how neglected Ireland's rich mythology has been by filmmakers. Wright's film may be an unfocussed mess that can't decide what tone it's aiming for, but a sequel that's happy to eschew the knuckle-headed social commentary and simply deliver monster movie thrills wouldn't be unwelcome.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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