Just because fairies are small in size doesn’t mean they’re not nasty little buggers. The original fairy myths present a very different picture from the adorable family-friendly Tinkerbell. Fairies are demanding, mischievous, and bossy. They abduct babies out of their cradles. They can overrun your life if you don’t handle them just so. You invite them in for a cup of tea, hoping to appease them, and before you know it, they’ve unpacked their bags. Director Jon Wright, in “Unwelcome,” has fun with these ideas, playing around with all kinds of stereotypes (about fairies, about Irish small-town life), and putting it into a horror context. In “Grabbers,” set on an island off Ireland’s coast, Wright mixed horror and comedy with sci-fi aliens, and “Unwelcome” has a similar mashup. Some of “Unwelcome” is legitimately creepy and upsetting. Some of it is hilarious. Whether or not the hilarity is intended is unclear.
Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) are a young couple living in a housing estate in London somewhere. In the very effective opening scene, Maya learns she’s pregnant. Their shared ecstasy is genuine. All is shot to hell in what happens next: three guys, straight out of Bill Buford’s nightmarish Among the Thugs, break in and beat Jamie senseless, also attacking Maya (kicking her in the stomach at one point). Jamie watches helplessly from across the room as the three men attack his girlfriend (or wife? She says later, “I married a nice guy…”).
Traumatized, Maya and Jamie move to a remote town in Northern Ireland. Jamie’s aunt died, leaving him her house. The couple is not in town 30 seconds before strangeness shows up, in the character of an older woman (Niamh Cusack) who greets them at the door. Jamie’s aunt was “a strange one,” she says, who “believed in the old ways.” Uh-oh. Every night, Jamie’s aunt would leave out a little plate of food at a gate in the back garden, an offering for “the little people.” Maya and James laugh. Jamie exclaims, “Leprechauns! This is so Irish!” The woman is not amused. She begs Maya—demands, really—to keep up the tradition. Every night, every night, mind you, leave out a plate of food for the “little people,” known as the far darrig, the “redcap” fairies. You do not want to mess with the far darrig.
Naturally, in horror film tradition, Maya and Jamie pooh-pooh this “quaint” wisdom and proceed to ignore all the red flags. They hire the Whelan family to work on the house (which is like inviting the locals in “Deliverance” as day laborers). Similar to fairy behavior, the Whelans settle in like they own the place. The loud-mouthed father (Colm Meaney) has some surface charm, but when he insists on being called “Daddy,” something steely and scary emerges. The three adult Whelan children (Kristian Nairn, Chris Walley, and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) are almost feral. The oldest, Owen, is a lumbering man-child who creeps on Maya. The other two rifle through Maya and Jamie’s possessions or loll about on the front steps smoking pot. Their hostility has historical and political implications. They throw “Oliver Cromwell” and “Michael Collins” into Jamie’s face when he objects to their behavior. Henry VIII is name-checked. Jamie and Maya have no recourse in the face of this. As far as the Whelans are concerned, they are just uppity colonizers.
It takes a long time for the actual redcap fairies to show up, and when they do, the effect is either supposed to be hilarious, or it’s unintentionally so. They’re a little like Gremlins or Yoda (if Yoda were a wise-cracking mean-spirited trickster). The mystery of these beings is what makes the opening hour of the film so creepy. You know they’re there. You just can’t see them. Making them explicit, and seen, tips the film over into a comedy. (One of the Whelan kids sees a teeny hand coming through a doorway and murmurs, “Oh, for f**k’s sake …” Reader, I laughed out loud.) The Whelans are human, but they are so much more frightening than the Gremlins dancing around, wielding teeny swords. There are a couple of sequences, especially the one involving a severed head inside a plastic bag, that play like slapstick comedy. This was obviously deliberate, but the overall tone is uneven.
The production design of “Unwelcome” is all fairy-tale, all golden light and thick greens, misty shadowy forests, almost the platonic ideal of Ireland in its purest state, the Ireland of the mind. Shot by Hamish Doyne-Ditmas, the film’s look is artificial, so much so that a couple of exteriors look like they were shot on a soundstage (and perhaps they were). This creates a strange effect, but welcome, particularly today where so many films seem to have been shot in a strictly black-and-grey palette, or like there’s a layer of dirt over the camera lens. In “Unwelcome,” it’s all golden and green. Wright told Empire he liked “horrors” that were “like adult fairy tales.” “Unwelcome” definitely applies.
John-Kamen and Booth create a believable relationship, good building blocks to develop as “Unwelcome” progresses. Jamie, ashamed at his cowardice during the apartment invasion, quivers with impotent rage, totally deteriorating his sweet personality. He needs to prove himself a real man. Booth really leans into this, and his sense of rage at the Whelan Invasion is palpable. Hannah, hugely pregnant throughout, goes through the biggest transformation, from traumatized skeptic to wild-eyed believer. John-Kamen tracks this progression every step of the way. Her journey is harrowing, and John-Kamen makes us believe it.