Melding the most adrenaline-pumping aspects of supernatural horror and cat-and-mouse thriller, Irish newcomer Damian McCarthy’s Caveat is certainly proficient in its ability to instill abject dread. Where it falls short, however, is in establishing a solid narrative foundation that keeps viewers immersed in the sinister story.
When offered $200 per day to take care of his landlord Barrett’s (Ben Caplan) mentally disturbed niece Olga (Leila Sykes) in an abandoned house on an eerily inaccessible island, cash-strapped drifter Isaac (Jonathan French) hesitantly takes the gig. This reluctance is exacerbated by the film’s titular Caveat, only revealed when Isaac arrives at the decrepit abode: He must remain strapped in a medieval-looking harness that restricts his access to certain rooms (namely Olga’s) while he’s there. “Every job has a uniform,” insists Barrett. The rationale for Isaac’s ostensible imprisonment is that the teenage Olga is prone to bouts of catatonic fits which render her incapable of surveying her surroundings or defending herself. Particularly when entrusted in the care of a strange man, Olga insists that her uncle strap her caretaker into the harness, as the metal chain attached to it conveniently stops just short of her doorway. If this arrangement isn’t baffling enough on its face, it quickly becomes creepier when it’s revealed that Olga’s father committed suicide in the basement and her “mad” mother disappeared from the premises shortly after.
Though these strange stipulations would deter even the most desperate of babysitters, Isaac persists relatively unbothered. He even finds solace in his situation when he finds a dingy dog tied to a post in the backyard—at least his human harness has plenty of slack. Though he can’t untether the dog due to the confines of his own chain, he throws the pup chunks of Spam and looks on with relative calm. It only takes a few moments of tranquility to egg on an entity—ambiguously mortal or spectral—that immediately begins tugging on Isaac’s chain just as he’s gotten comfortable.
This is the essence of McCarthy’s film: Mounting dread that incises every moment, even when rational logic insists that one can put their guard down. This level of nerve-shredding consistency is worthy of praise, particularly from an emerging voice in the genre. Avoiding the genre trappings of both soulless jump scares and mundane moodiness, Caveat delivers a thoughtfully crafted atmosphere conducive for orchestrating genuine scares. Though certain aspects of plot, character and structure fall through the cracks or simply fail to line up, Caveat is nonetheless a stylistically strong debut.
A tangential plotline involving Isaac suffering from an amnesia-inducing injury is easy enough for viewers to follow, but ultimately falters when it comes to enriching the interiority of the characters tied to the incident. This detail also fails to raise the stakes for Isaac’s terrifying predicament in any meaningful way, nor does it offer compelling enough answers for the horrors hidden in the home. In fact, Caveat works best as a claustrophobic exercise in paranormal peek-a-boo, so the decision to take the viewer outside of that perfectly creepy, cramped environment through flashback segments ultimately hinders the stunning emotional and visual language embedded in the old home. Conversely, the few flashbacks that are employed in order to convey the evil acts committed in the house before the events of the film are overall less jarring, instead adding a more intimate blueprint for viewers to understand the deeply cursed aura that radiates from the estate.
If the intricacies of story and structure are far less important than substantial scares in one’s eyes, then Caveat has more than enough to offer. McCarthy blends the best of both haunted houses and human-inflicted horror, probing the unease that stems from both the paranormal and psychological dangers that lurk in dark corners, whether they be in hallways or headspace. With a tight 87-minute runtime, Caveat would have made for a perfectly lean chiller had it opted to maximize the claustrophobia inherent in literally chaining the viewer to one terrifying location for the entirety of the film. The extraneous exposition through flashbacks displaces the audience from the singular location where the protagonist finds himself trapped, thus effectively breaking the illusion that there is no escape.
Director: Damian McCarthy
Writer: Damian McCarthy
Stars: Jonathan French, Leila Sykes, Ben Caplan
Release Date: June 3, 2021 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.