Unwelcome Director Jon Wright Talks Irish Horror, Goblins, And Hannah John-Kamen


by Sophie Butcher |
Published on

You’ve heard of monsters under the bed – but what about at the end of the garden? It’s an idea that co-writer and director Jon Wright explores in his new film Unwelcome, in which expectant couple Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) move to rural Ireland to escape the intensity of urban life, only to come across new threats, both human and otherwise. The ‘otherwise’? A breed of malevolent, murderous goblins called Redcaps, taken from Anglo-Scottish folklore and dropped here into a contemporary take on the creature-feature.

For Wright, inspiration for the mythology of Unwelcome came from his own personal history – devouring Grimm tales as a child, and an Irish grandfather who believed in fairies – as well as a desire to see horror stories that weren’t just about blood and guts. “Around the time that things like Saw and Hostel came out, I had a bit of self-doubt about horror, and was thinking that maybe it wasn’t for me,” Wright tells Empire. “The thing I like about horror is the fantastical elements. I like horrors that infuse that, and are like adult fairy tales. That’s very much what Unwelcome is.”


Goblins, then. Snooty bankers from Harry Potter or Willem Dafoe in a pointy green suit spring to mind. How does one make them truly menacing? Wright reunited with the team he worked with on his 2012 movie Grabbers, which featured some pretty nasty face-hugger types, to bring the Redcaps to life. Brief glimpses of them are seen in the trailer – a hand snaking through the letterbox, a small form crashing through a window – but we do get to hear them, their mischievous laughter echoing through the house. That cackle may sound fairly playful and innocuous, but make no mistake – these goblins are not to be messed with. “These aren’t nice goblins, these are nasty goblins,” Wright confirms. “The Redcap myth is that they kill their victims and then dip their cap in their blood. They’re malevolent, but they also have a sense of glee. So when they do terrible things, they really enjoy it. There’s no remorse or guilt there, they take a lot of pleasure in it. It’s really a part of them.” Note to self: homicidal goblins do not make good house guests.

“A lot of this film is about a very urban, liberal couple getting back in touch with their primal, animal selves"

The house itself is key to the twists and turns of Unwelcome. As Maya and Jamie attempt to attain a simpler life in perfect, picturesque rural Ireland, they also end up discovering a new side to themselves. “I guess the movie in some ways is about how we lead very technological lives. We’re always looking at screens, sitting down, and have sort of drifted away from nature,” he says. “A lot of this film is about a very urban, liberal, progressive couple getting back in touch with their primal, animal selves – this bestial side again. The woods at the bottom of the garden, that’s where Mother Nature lives, metaphorically. It’s like they’re going back to their ancestors in a way. And they’re certainly going back in time in a sense, going back to a place that’s much less built up and much wilder than where they start the film.”


As it turns out, for Maya and Jamie, escaping the city doesn’t mean escaping violence. They may have inherited their grand, idyllic house at the perfect time, but it’s not long before they have to defend it. Unwelcome is ultimately, as Wright says, “a home invasion movie” – and the director is pulling from all kinds of cinematic inspiration to get there. “When we pitched it, we talked about it being Gremlins meets Straw Dogs,” he says. The influence of the latter is especially clear in the threat the couple experiences from the locals they employ as builders – one character comes right out with it, telling Jamie not to leave Maya alone with them. The malice is enhanced by the fact Maya and Jamie are an English couple coming into an Irish town, picking at the scabs of real life historical tension. For Wright, it’s all part of making horror movies with a deeper underlying message. “Films like Hereditary, It Follows and The Witch, they’re horrors, but they have something to say”, he says. “Unwelcome is in the vein of these modern horrors where we can get into these more interesting themes and subjects, like the politics of English people turning up and living in this big house in Ireland. We explore that quite a bit.”

Despite their best efforts to fit in, Maya and Jamie end up on the wrong side of those around them, and shit undoubtedly heads for the fan. The trailer hints at a third act full of creepy forest shenanigans, goblin action and the full-on home invasion that Wright promises, with Douglas Booth’s Jamie desperately pleading for peace by the end – a total antithesis to super-heroic movie archetypes. “We wanted someone who’s a bit of a coward, and can’t really cope,” says Wright of the character. “He gets into this very violent situation and just can’t deal with it. When people get in very pressured and frightening situations, they panic – but we don’t see that in movies very much.”

Booth is opposite Hannah John-Kamen, stepping away from her comic book characters (she played Ghost in Ant-Man And The Wasp, and has been cast as Red Sonja in a new adaptation) to take on an altogether more vulnerable role. Maya is heavily pregnant in the film, which is integral to her motivation to defend herself, her family and their home. “I was talking to Mark [Stay, co-writer] about being a pacifist,” Wright recounts, “and how uncomfortable I am in violent situations, but also that now I have a son – and if he was threatened, I would be violent. I’d defend him. I’d kill somebody if I had to. And we found that contradiction really interesting, that you can have somebody say they’re a pacifist but, in reality, would commit a terrible act of violence to protect their family. That’s why Hannah’s character is pregnant. That’s ultimately who she’s defending.” The room to breathe in this lead role could also give us the opportunity to see just what John-Kamen is capable of. “Hannah really has star quality,” Wright says, “and every day on set I’d be properly blown away by her. It’s a nuanced and layered performance. To me, if she isn’t a star already, it could be a star-making performance.”

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Unwelcome comes to UK cinemas in 2022.

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