Many, many months ago, on a trip to the cinema to see a film that I have long forgotten the name of, I saw a trailer for an upcoming horror movie. I remember sitting in the dark, transfixed by what I was watching. It was called Unwelcome and looked pretty dark. The trailer featured plenty of screaming and blood, the stuff we’ve become accustomed to in the horror genre.
But what caught my attention wasn’t the gore and yelling. It was the creature at the film’s heart. This wasn’t a monster movie about malevolent beasts stalking the moors or a knife-wielding maniac wandering suburbia. It was about fairies, or as I’d later learn, a type of goblin known as a Redcap.
I immediately turned to my friend who’s joined me on my trip to the cinemas and said, “well, that looks fucking fantastic”, and sat back to watch the aforementioned unremembered movie. Well, Unwelcome is finally in theatres, and I can say it was more than worth the wait. It’s wild and unapologetically weird. Earlier this week, we were lucky enough to sit with the director Jon Wright and talk about his incredible new movie.
The Digital Fix: There were several moments in your movie where I literally sat up with my head in my hands, asking myself, ‘is this really happening?’ How important do you think it is to keep audiences guessing when making a film like this?
Jon Wright: Thank you. I appreciate that. One of the things I have found about a lot of films recently is that they’re quite formulaic. And the formula is quite visible. You can kind of see what’s going to happen.
Often it’s going to be within certain boundaries… there are not really going to be any surprises. And I think we went out of our way to make it so that you can’t really tell where it’s going. In particular, that final scene that, you’re going to think, ‘I didn’t see this coming’. I defy anybody to watch the film and predict that final scene.
TDF: Woah, let’s not jump right to the end! We’ll start at the more obvious beginning. Where did the idea come from?
JW: Well, we had a theme, you know. The writer and I, Mark, were talking about how we were cowardly. We were saying how we’d describe ourselves as pacifists to people and non-violent people. But essentially, that was a nice way of covering over the fact that we were cowards and terrible at fighting. Whenever physical violence occurred around us, we’d be very scared and afraid because we wouldn’t know what to do and couldn’t throw a punch.
We were sort of laughing at each other, really. Then when we got into the subjects of our kids, so I have a 13-year-old son, and [Mark] has two teenage children, we both agreed that if our kids were in danger, we would kind of have to be violent.
But because we’re essentially rubbish at fighting, we would probably pick up a weapon and be ultra-violent in how we executed the fight because we want it to be over as soon as possible. So strangely, you have this paradox of pacifists who are willing to be ultra-violent. And we thought that’s an interesting, dramatic premise.
That’s almost like a question that you should ask characters and explore, you know, but explore it to the extreme, not gently push these characters to the point where they have to confront their inner violence or not. So we took these two metropolitan liberal Londoners and put them through the wringer. We weren’t nice to them. It’s very important that you’re not nice to your characters because it doesn’t make for very good viewing.
TDF: I want to dig into Jamie a little bit. He is such an interesting character. He’s so ineffectual and impotent, and it sometimes manifests as a toxic masculinity.
JW: Jamie’s so harrowed by what happens to him at the beginning of the film, during the home invasion, which is really quite unpleasant. He is so traumatised by that experience that he’s determined to change his personality. So he recognises that he’s a bit of a gamma male and needs to step up and become ‘an alpha male’.
So he starts boxing and training so that if that situation happens again, he is going to step up to the plate. It’s very much like you see in many modern films where somebody steps up to the plate, and they literally step towards the camera into a big close-up, and say a one-liner to the villain.
He tries desperately to do that. And I think we set you up to think, ‘Okay, this is where this is going’, but it’s going to go wrong. He doesn’t have it in his personality, and he actually kind of buckles under the pressure, panics, and cracks up. He just cannot cope.
I loved Douglas Booth for being the man who was willing to do that. Ironically, he’s very courageous in playing a person who’s completely lacking in courage because he’s willing to play that honestly.
TDF: Another theme in the film is the idea that the countryside, and to an extent Ireland, are an ideal that you can retreat to. But that does a disservice to a lot of rural areas struggling with their own problems.
JW: Yeah, I think the countryside is very like the city. There are nice people and nasty people and all the shades of grey in between. And just because they live somewhere beautiful and idyllic and quiet doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good people.
Yeah. So we’re at pains to show that a lot of the villages where Jamie and Maya moved to are very nice and very helpful and supportive, but not all of them.
TDF: No, but what they went through at the start of the film was so terrifying…
JW: Yeah, I don’t think those two would have moved to the countryside and taken over that house and gone quite as far out in the sticks as they do if they hadn’t had such a horrendous experience at the top of the film.
So that that opening sequence is sort of important for two reasons. It’s important to drive those characters into the middle of nowhere. It’s also important to show people in the audience, people like me, who have short attention spans and like their films to have a bit of a hard edge that ‘don’t worry, this is where we’re going to get to’.
This is the level of intensity and violence of scariness that we’re going to get to give you a little taste, a little teaser to look forward to.
TDF: It was refreshing that you didn’t go full Wicker Man on the people living in the countryside.
JW: Yeah, the point is, really, that Jamie and Maya go against their instincts. Like when, when they choose to get involved with the Whelan family, all the alarm bells are ringing. It’s just that they are fish out of water. They just don’t know. They just don’t have their bearings.
They haven’t settled in that feeling when you move to a new area that you just don’t really know your neighbours, you don’t know the people down the street, you don’t know what’s going to happen. They make a big mistake. And boy, did they pay for it later.
TDF: And the decision to make Maya pregnant, was that entirely motivated by that feeling that being a parent could push someone to violence?
JW: It puts her on that threshold. She’s about to cross over from being single to being a parent. So she’s entering that world. She’s entering a world in which she might be capable of violence, and she’s got to confront that one way or another.
I think Jamie and Maya have both lost touch with their animal selves. And that’s part of what this film is about, that they’re very much more than metropolitan people who spent a lot of their working day with their noses and a screen, like a lot of us.
There’s a sense that we are separated from nature, and we try it with ourselves apart from nature, but really, we belong there. Yeah. So I’ve really enjoyed that feeling of taking this very civilised couple right to the edge of nature, to the edge of the world and leading them into the deep dark woods. And then they are going to learn what’s down there, what’s in their primal animal selves, what urges and fears and desires they’ve really got.
TDF: We have to talk a little about your monster, the Redcaps. They’re not what I was expecting…
JW: Tell me how you found them? I’m curious.
TDF: They reminded me of Joe Dante’s gremlins but scarier. Joe’s gremlins didn’t carry little knives…
JW: I think Gremlins is a huge influence on this film. I find Gremlins a bit dated now in terms of how the creature effects have aged, but I do love the movie. One of the things I really enjoy about Gremlins is how gleeful they are and how mischievous, and how much pleasure they take in the havoc that they wreak.
So that’s definitely something we wanted to channel into the Redcaps. They don’t feel any guilt about the violence that they’re meeting out. They enjoy it. It’s natural to them. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had watching that. It’s quite disturbing in a way, but at the same time, it’s very entertaining.
TDF: One of my favourite horror writers apparently once said that true horror comes from presenting people with a monster, not hiding it. You seem to have taken a similar view? You don’t hide the Redcaps for long, and once they’re on-screen, they’re a near-constant presence.
JW: Yeah, I wanted to play a game, really. I wanted to build up anticipation for them, and then they’re revealed, and there’s kind of a big turning point in the film when you first see the goblin, as you know.
I think until that point, you’re not really sure where the story’s going. It could all be in Maya’s imagination, and the goblins are actually Maya, and she’s acting out these things and attributing what’s happening to goblins.
There are a lot of questions that are asked, and the goblins have a sort of slightly mysterious quality themselves. So yeah, we’re playing a guessing game, but I think you get the answers to that. And you know, we work very hard in making the goblins look as good as they can be and making them feel real and weighty and like they have gravity.
TDF: You did a really good job at distinguishing them. I liked the one with the little beard.
JW: Well, the guy inside that costume is my best friend from school. He was an actor called Rick Ward. He actually played all the goblins. We motion-captured Rick, and he did all the voices and facial expressions for all of the goblins.
The goblins themselves are full-size actors, mostly stunt men, in costumes with masks on, walking around on double-height sets. So when the Redcap comes through the French doors at the beginning, that’s a 12-foot-high set of French doors, and he’s reaching up literally to the handle to a giant handle and opening it.
That’s why they look like they’re really there because they actually are there. But then, when you’re in close-ups in talking or looking around or expressing themselves, we took our CG model of the mask and used Rick’s expressions and speech to animate the mask to get the best of both worlds.
I think you get a kind of old-school technique fused with the new-school technique. It gives you the best of both worlds because personally, I’m not completely sold on fully CG monsters and features. Sometimes they can look absolutely amazing.
If you’re in a close-up, they can look incredible, but sometimes when they’re fighting with characters or jumping around interacting with the real world, they can look a little bit like the gravity isn’t quite right. And they’re not quite connecting with the things they’re touching.
TDF: As I promised, we’re going to have to discuss the ending a little. Do you think Unwelcome has a happy ending?
JW: It’s interesting because now, obviously, I’m talking to people that have seen the film. Yeah, a lot of people do see it as a happy ending. I think it is a happy ending, in a way, but it’s very – how would you put it? – it ends in a very strange place.
It was very important to me that we showed that Jamie is happy in that place and that he supports Maya. He’s pleased for her in the transformation, and yeah, I think they both are liberated. I think that they both escaped their PTSD.
Unwelcome is in UK cinemas now!
If you love scary films, you need to check out our detailed guides on the new movies Scream 6 and Saw 10. We’ve also got a comprehensive list of the best monster movies and an article all about our favourite zombie movies.