It’s hard to find a horror flick lately that thrills us, makes our hearts beat a little faster, and makes us gasp aloud.
With new media constantly being churned out from Netflix and the like, we become almost numb to the terrors that flash across our screens.
At least, I do.
I don’t think I’ve gasped at a horror movie since It Follows back in 2014. The gasp that came out of me when the giant man comes out of nowhere and ducks through the door? Holy hell.
However, I can proudly say Caveat made me quite literally jump—and yes, gasp too.
Caveat opens with Isaac (Jonathan French), a soft-spoken, doe-eyed loner with partial memory loss. His pushy former landlord Barret (Ben Caplan) reminds him (much to Isaac’s suspicions) that they are friends, and asks him to keep watch over his disturbed young niece, Olga (Leila Sykes) after the suicide of her father and the disappearance of her mentally ill mother.
Barret pressures Isaac to take the babysitting job and offers him £200 a night. Reluctantly, Isaac agrees, and they make their way to the house.
When Barret pulls up to a ramshackle dock in an unsettlingly deserted part of Ireland, Isaac peers out to the distant island in the middle of a lake. He questions Barret, as he never said anything about an island, and to make it worse, Isaac can’t swim. Barret assures him it will be fine, and the two head toward the island on a boat.
The island is wooded and seemingly abandoned, save for the lone house that is falling apart in between the dead trees. Barret takes Isaac inside, only to find that the place is quite literally a hell hole. Old newspapers layer the dingy table and dark, crooked paintings hang off the wall. The walls are dirty and the wooden floors split and creak.
Barret brings up a “tiny” limitation that he failed to mention earlier—while Isaac stays in the house, he must wear a “sleepwalking vest,” a large, bulky leather garment connected to a long, thick chain that is anchored to a metal spike in the basement. He tells Isaac that he must wear it because Olga fears people getting too close to her physically. By wearing the vest, he cannot enter Olga’s room and the outside world. At the point of no return, Isaac reluctantly agrees to wear the leash and stay with the young girl. Barret locks him in and leaves the island.
Isaac is left to sit in the old, dilapidated house, and becomes increasingly more unnerved, between the tugging on his chain when his back is turned to the dirty, skeletal drumming toy hare that stares up at him with bulbous eyes, seemingly warning him of a nefarious presence that lurks in every dark crevice.
Though its plot sounds like a recipe for a cliche horror film, Caveat is certainly not that.
Damian McCarthy’s brilliant debut is a haunting, unique ghost story featuring some of the most powerful imagery I’ve seen in years. I was shocked to find that the film, despite feeling high-budget in acting and effects, had such a low budget of £250,000. Clearly, McCarthy knows what he’s doing and we can expect continuous great work from him as he gains popularity.
I was impressed by his ability (especially as a first-time horror filmmaker) to skillfully pace and plant jump scares throughout the film. None of them smack you in the face; rather, they are presented slowly and nonchalantly, making their appearances all the most disturbing.
The flashback sequences of Olga’s rawboned mother drawing white circles on black, rumpled construction paper with a manic smile on her face reminded me of certain shots of A Serbian Film. A bit extreme to compare the two, I know, but McCarthy’s talent for these types of unsettling scenes is akin to others in that realm of horror. That being said, he is uniquely able to do this without categorizing Caveat as extreme or exploitative. From the images of the old, lockable leather vest to the angry-looking toy hare and his little drum, McCarthy unnerves his audience with ease—and without showing too much.
McCarthy’s use of dread through the atmosphere and set production is fantastic. The ripped-up wallpaper, the crumbling house, the holes in the drywall, the black stains on the ceiling and windows—the house itself became a character, a ghostly, labyrinth of an antagonist that Isaac desperately tries to escape.
I also adored the use of sound in Caveat, and how it built up that dread. The tiny echoes of the hare’s drum, the gentle, slow sawing of drywall, and the clanging of Isaac’s chain are still scraping away within the confines of my skull as I write this. They’re fairly simple sounds, but concocted together and strewn through the unnerving silence that lays in the film’s background, Caveat becomes a terrifying feast for the ears.
Caplan, French, and Sykes are all incredibly talented actors who work frighteningly well together. I was shocked when I looked and found that they hadn’t been in many other major productions. French’s ability to portray terror, grief and fear without saying much is staggering. Before the first ten minutes are up, you feel for him. His facial expressions alone capture you before the terror even unfolds, and we care about him because we’re going in just as blindly as Isaac is.
Caplan is an intimidating, terrifying actor who instantly holds presence in each scene he’s in, creating an enigmatic, fearful undertone in every friendly and persuasive thing he says. It’s unnerving, and his steely stare that pushes Isaac into taking the job is manipulative and creepy.
While Caveat has many strong points, there are also areas in which it certainly could be improved. There were spots that confused me and I had to stop and rewind fifteen seconds. I would have loved to see the narrative, especially the hare, Olga, and her dynamic with her family (and the mystery revolving around her mother), be explained more thoroughly. The writing could certainly be stronger, but the stellar acting, imagery, set production, and sound design outweighed the film’s faults.
Caveat is a film that deserves to be recognized. It’s an impressive, quiet horror that stands up against the recent cliches that are being churned out on streaming services. Damian McCarthy pulls together a creepy, haunting Irish ghost story that builds an uncanny sense of dread and sucks you into the world by surrounding you with it by sound and sight.
Let’s just say I don’t think I’m going to be able to get the sound of sawing drywall out of my head anytime soon.
dir. Damian McCarthy
Streaming on Shudder starting June 3.
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