Coming soon to Shudder, Irish chiller Caveat has been a real labour of love for director Damian McCarthy, who worked a nine-to-five job to help cover post-production costs out of his own pocket. It’s a slow-paced and mysterious affair that keeps its secrets close to its chest and offers them up only grudgingly.
Jonathan French plays bearded amnesiac Isaac, who takes on a job from his landlord Barret (Ben Caplan). It sounds like relatively easy money, or at least Barret reassures him that it is with all the greasy cajoling of a wideboy flogging Rolexes at a market, and Isaac seems desperate. He only has to look after Barret’s troubled niece Olga (Leila Sykes), who has recently lost her father to suicide, for a few days. The twist: the babysitting must take place in a crumbling, isolated house accessible only by boat, and for the duration of his stay, Isaac will be locked into a harness that keeps him tethered to the house’s basement by a length of chain.
Once in the house, there are further downsides to consider. Olga suffers from paralysing fits, there may be a body in the basement, and general creepiness abounds. The motif that will stick with viewers longest is a mechanical rabbit toy whose beady eyes seem in some way to embody whatever darkness lurks in the house.
It’s a completely unbelievable premise, and the various twists and turns that Caveat wants you to follow it on are equally unlikely. Fortunately, this is counterbalanced by the excellent cinematography of Kieran Fitzgerald. He shoots every frame of the dilapidated house with a voyeur’s eye, each decaying room wreathed in sinister shadows. His style tells us that when we make the short voyage to the island, we should leave our rational sides behind. Meanwhile, the production design skills of Damian Draven ensure that every shot practically reeks of mildew and dust. It put us in mind of Matt Holness‘s disturbing Possum or 2006‘s The Living and the Dead, films that take place in domestic settings so heightened in their unpleasantness as to give their stories a semi-mythical quality.
With extremely sparse dialogue, it’s this atmosphere of off-kilter unreality that gives the film its edge. Tension is sustained throughout, and as the story unfolds, and we learn more about Isaac’s forgotten connection to the house and its inhabitants, the consistent ambiance of pervasive dread discourages us from asking too many questions. This is just as well, as the unfolding story becomes fairly convoluted and pushes suspension of disbelief perhaps a touch further than it ought to.
With a minimal budget, McCarthur has managed to craft some really inventive moments of horror. Using only a few elements, such as clanking chains, children’s toys and holes in the walls, he provides some genuinely unsettling sequences. This is not to say that the film is devoid of cliche – horror fans will find plenty of familiar shots as well. However, it’s a testament to McCarthy’s resourcefulness that most of the sequences feel fresh and organic.
Jonathan French is engaging in his first feature role, and as his character lurches from trepidation and bemusement into terror, he handles the transition very well. Leila Sykes is opaque and inscrutable as Olga, whose fondness for a deadly crossbow makes her a dangerous presence not be trifled with. Stealing the show, however, is Ben Caplan as Barret, possibly the most oily and least trustworthy character ever to appear on film. That Isaac is forced to take him at his word in the opening of the film is the best possible illustration of his desperation.
With its enigmatic storyline, minimal dialogue and a setting that decays right alongside the emotional states of its principle characters, Caveat is a striking and disquieting experience. It’s like if Harold Pinter fell asleep reading The Fall of the House of Usher and had a cheese nightmare. Though its plot is perhaps a bit too meandering, with its far-fetched twists and turns, it’s still a great first outing for director Damian McCarthy.