Creature features are a time-honored tradition in cinema – one that has, in the tangle of slashers, urban landscape and psychological or existential horror, has fallen to the wayside in recent years. 

That makes Unwelcome feel so fresh: It finds some rather disparate Hollywood tropes and doesn’t mash them as much as swirl them together in a fun and interesting way, mixing in a more modern exploration of trauma that does its characters justice. 

At Unwelcome‘s heart is a story of two young urbanites in love. Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) are Londoners who have just experienced deep trauma. On the day they learned Maya was pregnant, young punks attacked them in an attempted break-in. 

Soon after, they learn Jamie’s aunt has passed away and left him her house in the Irish countryside. They decide to pack up and leave the city to give rural life a shot.

But their new home is a fixer-upper in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and it requires the handiwork of the local Whelan family. The home also sits on land that houses a band of murderous trolls linked to their aunt in a very personal way. As all trolls do, they provide protection and loyalty … but at a heavy toll. 

The film’s strength is in its ability to weave in a fantastical and even silly plotline with a real, often sensitive portrayal of dealing with trauma. Early on, scenes with the tough Daddy Whelan (Colm Meaney) and his emotionally stunted children (Kristian Nairn, Chris Walley and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) carry their own tension based on their lack of care and understanding of what they’ve been through. 

It shows the hurt that careless words, sudden, loud sounds or acts of disrespect can cause people struggling in the aftermath of an attack in ways you sometimes don’t see in dramas focused on the topic. 

Of course, this only amps up once the trolls make themselves known, taking advantage of the time they’re needed most and offering a sampling of their services that make their steep price seem almost palatable. 

The trolls are little monsters for sure, living in the woods behind a wall built to contain them. When they’re dormant, you won’t even notice them. But when summoned, they strike quickly, with stark, gory efficiency. 

The trolls are known in Irish folklore as fear dearg; others know of them as “Red Caps.” They’re vicious, strangely cute little goblins who would just as gladly disembowel a stranger as look at them. Like a fine-tuned gang of circus performers, they swarm, striking quickly and mercilessly with a sense of glee, slicing and stabbing in concert. Individually they can be overpowered and killed, but as a unit they are lethal. 

Unwelcome offers teases of a deeper origin, but writers Mark Stay and Jon Wright smartly don’t dig into that. Instead, they don’t ask why but stick with the story in front of them, which morphs into a battle of wills between Jamie and Maya and Whelan and his family. 

John-Kamen shines in the lead, bringing weight to a character with an inherent vulnerability but a believable toughness when she’s called to use it. Booth depicts Gen-Z masculinity in an oddly poignant way: his past failures to protect Maya have left him questioning his manhood, which seems to make him even weaker in times of stress. But teaming with Maya makes them a formidable team, as they draw strength from each other. 

Meaney has long brought gravitas to supporting and character roles dating back to the late 1980s. Here, he is a gruff bully whose veneer of friendliness belies an inherent malevolence. He insists on being called “Daddy” in a way that seems intended as a friendly gesture, but comes off as creepy. He’s unable to mask his contempt for his children or the city folk he’s trying to help. 

Nairn, known best as the hulking Hodor in Game of Thrones, here plays Whelan’s developmentally disabled son. He plays well the simple giant who wants to be gentle while still bringing a sense of pathos and danger. 

Walley and O’Donnell bring a loud-mouthed sense of entitlement, grown children who have spent a lifetime sneaking behind their father’s back to cause mischief. Their rudeness is the catalyst that escalates the story, and they’re a fun human mirror to the trolls. 

Stay and Wright pack a lot of weight into what is otherwise a simple story and deliver both the emotional beats and the horror elements. This isn’t an overly scary film; the violence is often as cartoonish as it is graphic. This film’s tagline is “Gremlins meets Straw Dogs,” a very apt mashup. But it shares a lot with The Descent, at least thematically speaking, with its thrusting of traumatized characters into an equally, and continually escalating, hopelessly horrific situation and watching those characters embrace their animalistic side. 

It’s certainly another time-honored trope that, in this generation, can be put to good use. Unwelcome certainly does that. Mixed into the bloody, entrail-jiggling mayhem are small, subtle reminders that violence begets violence, delivered with murderous glee, but in a way that has just enough oomph to feel like more than just another monster movie.