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Horror as Folk: The Little People and the Unlikely Folk Horror of Unwelcome (2023)

What makes something folk horror? It’s a question we’ve been… if not exactly trying to answer then at least concerning ourselves with since the very first installment of this column. And, as has been the case with some of the other films we’ve discussed here, I don’t think that Unwelcome is necessarily going to bring us any closer to an answer, but I do think that it introduces some interesting wrinkles to the question.

Hence, why we’re going to continue our break from the All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set to instead discuss this 2023 film from director Jon Wright, who previously helmed the minor cult hit from 2012, Grabbers.

When an attempt is made to codify folk horror, it usually focuses on one of two tacks: narrative elements, i.e., what the movie is about on a purely textual level, or thematic elements, i.e., what the movie is about on a subtextual level. And at least on a textual level, Unwelcome is emphatically folk horror.

The monsters in Unwelcome – this is barely a spoiler, the movie tells you almost immediately, the marketing even sooner – are redcaps. For those who don’t know, redcaps are bloodthirsty little goblins of Scottish folklore that have been imported to Ireland for our purposes here. So named due to their habit of dipping their caps in the blood of their victims, redcaps are generally pretty vicious. There’s a lot of other weird folklore tied up with the redcap, and this particular iteration of fairy folklore has found its way into everything from roleplaying games to Monsters in my Pocket.

Unfortunately, the redcaps in Unwelcome borrow precious little from this lore. Indeed, more than anything they resemble the goblins popularized by the Pathfinder game – or those of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – albeit a bit more violent than either. It seems that these redcaps can be called upon to do you a favor, but they demand a heavy price in return, which is very fae folk, at least.

Now we get to the themes of Unwelcome, which are a bit harder to tease out, though not because the film is playing especially coy with them. There are certainly themes here that are resonant with those in other folk horror films. Pregnancy and childbirth. Abortion rights. The relationship between people and the land. Old belief systems being laughed off by modern folks. Conflict between “outsiders,” especially urban ones, and the rural folk of close-knit communities. And yet, the film seldom delves deeply into any of them.

Indeed, nothing happens to any character at any point in Unwelcome that is more than a 1980s cartoon’s idea of how things work. At the beginning of the film, we’re treated to a view of life in the city that, though scrubbed visibly clean, nonetheless could have come straight out of a reactionary film like 1974’s Death Wish.

That life in the country is only marginally less of a cartoon – and ultimately no more safe – could easily provide some sort of thematic resonance, but here feels largely devoid of message. Things happen less because they follow from previous events or inform some larger meaning and more because the plot requires them to happen.

One good example comes in the form of our protagonist’s husband. After the traumatic event that opens the film, his entire character arc is that he was not “man enough” to stop it, and so he is going to “man up” to prevent anything like that from ever happening to his wife or his unborn child again. So, naturally, the first thing he does after his heavily pregnant wife tells him – in hysterics – that someone just tried to sexually assault and murder her is to leave her alone to go to the pub. “Masculine”? Perhaps, but also nonsensical.

Still, though, we must naturally assume that the success of a film’s deployment of its narrative elements or themes is not what determines its subgenre, which means that, by just about any working definition, Unwelcome is a folk horror film.

And yet, it would sit uncomfortably indeed on a double-bill with pretty much any of the other films that we’ve covered in this column, or most of the rest of the established “folk horror” classics. Which suggests that perhaps there’s something more going on than either text or subtext when it comes to folk horror. Or, at least, that there are patterns at play that make some things feel more like folk horror than others, whether they are or not.

Though Unwelcome is folk horror by every rubric we have thus far concocted, it actually shares more cinematic DNA with films like Gremlins or Critters or even Attack the Block. And not merely because the creatures are mean-spirited, gribbly little monsters. There’s obviously a certain style that those movies all share, which perhaps helps to suggest how Unwelcome can be a folk horror film, but not feel like one.

If folk horror is a genre that has aesthetic and stylistic markers as surely as it has narrative or thematic ones, it certainly would not be the first. Take the gothic, one of the earliest literary forms to truly take on the elements that we would associate with genre today. Gothics have narrative and thematic concerns in common, certainly, but they also have aesthetic and stylistic ones. More recently, you can make a similar argument about the Italian giallo.

The Munsters certainly samples from gothic aesthetics, but is it truly a gothic, lacking pretty much all of that genre’s thematic concerns? Meanwhile, giallo purists will argue until they’re blue in the face about whether or not Suspiria or Inferno are truly giallo films, even though they reproduce much of the style and aesthetic of that subgenre, while pulling in narrative elements and thematic concerns from supernatural chillers and, yes, gothics.

Luckily for us, we’re not in the business of truly answering these questions. It ultimately doesn’t matter if Unwelcome is a folk horror film that seems a bit out-of-place at all the family gatherings, or a Gremlins-alike that samples folk horror elements. We can simply enjoy it as a movie full of delightfully gribbly little goblins. Sometimes, that’s enough.