Damian Mc Carthy’s CAVEAT is part of a proud lineage of horror films that asks the age-old question, “What would you do to make a quick buck?”
A bizarre, claustrophobic debut for the Irish filmmaker, CAVEAT has a juicy hook to it: Isaac (Jonathan French) agrees to babysit his landlord’s niece, Olga (Leila Sykes), for a few days in a decrepit house on a remote island. The catch? Or, in this case, caveat? Isaac must wear a leather harness and chain that restricts him from entering certain rooms. According to his landlord, Barrett (Ben Caplan), it’s a device usually meant for people who have a tendency to sleepwalk, though in this case, it also helps to calm Olga’s nerves, as she suffers from a variety of mental health issues. Though apprehensive at first, Isaac complies, chalking it up to being a weird quirk that comes with the job territory. As time goes on, tensions arise between Isaac and Olga as revelations are made and long-forgotten memories resurface.
For a first-time filmmaker, it’s evident that what Mc Carthy really excels at here is tone. From the get-go, we’re placed in the borderline comically spooky house for which much of the film takes place. Barrett tells Isaac that it belonged to his brother and sister-in-law, the latter of whom vanished after the brother tragically took his own life. With large cracks in the walls and vines growing in through the windows, the baroque, haunted house presentation is unnerving and lends itself to this relentlessly atmospheric thriller.
Along with Kieran Fitzgerald’s static cinematography, watching CAVEAT can sometimes feel like watching a stage production, with its minuscule cast populating a tight space. Together, these stylistic choices might throw folks off, and quite frankly, it did for this critic during the film’s first quarter. Like its slow-burn narrative, though, these choices creep up on you in unexpected ways, with its shot composition heightening the suspense during key scenes and the production design gradually shrinking to the point that it’s hard not to feel restrained like Isaac in his harness.
Equally oppressive is the sound design. A near-constant ambiance is present throughout and there are other clever, playful ways in which the audio can creep under your skin. “Have you ever heard the sound of a fox crying?” Barrett asks Isaac early on in the film, referring to a family of foxes that live on the island. “Sounds like a teenage girl screaming.”
It’d be a crime not to mention the film’s utilization of a toy rabbit playing the drums (yes, you read that right). It’s the ugliest goddamn thing you’ve ever seen and, boy, does it leaves a wallop of an impression. Serving as a sort of mysterious guardian, the rabbit beats its drum as a means of communicating with the cast of characters, whether it be a warning sign or an answer to “yes or no” questions. It’s a delightful take on a familiar gimmick.
Though there were a few occasions which had this critic contemplating whether or not more moments of silence would make for a welcome balance, there’s simply no denying that the audio adds tremendously in delivering a disquieting experience.
Make no mistake: perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to CAVEAT is that it can be downright chilling at times, even during moments that left me questioning the logic of some plot points. Bolstered by ace performances from the cast, it’s up to them to convince the audience of the many twists and turns, and they largely succeed. Like other fine thrillers, the film is tightly paced, with the stakes established quickly and concisely. Though its steady pace doesn’t pay off with a crescendo of a finale, the film’s final images produce a feeling of unease that has lingered with me for days. It’s a weird, oddly fitting end to a winding path.
Though the path to get to that ending features a few plot conveniences as well as a somewhat undercooked use of the harness device, it’s a testament to how nicely the rest of the film’s elements come together that they didn’t irk me all that much. CAVEAT’s greatest strengths might not dawn on you immediately, but like Isaac’s leash, don’t be surprised if they follow you around.
CAVEAT arrives on Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand on June 3, 2021.