Written, directed, and edited by Damian McCarthy, Caveat is a creeping, atmospheric Irish horror with an overflowing sense of dread and a decaying aesthetic. Filmed in Cork, Ireland, Caveat is the feature film debut for McCarthy following a series of horror shorts that set a moody scene, building to the unique and foreboding feature.
In the film, lone drifter Isaac (Jonathan French) — who suffers from partial memory loss — is hired by his landlord, Barret (Ben Caplan), to “babysit” his adult niece Olga (Leila Sykes) for five days. But it’s not nearly as simple as that; Olga’s father is recently dead by suicide, her mother is missing, and Olga herself exhibits some rather discomforting behavior.
This task seems straightforward enough, but there’s one caveat, and it’s a big one. Isaac must wear a padlocked leather harness with a long, heavy chain that restricts his movements through the house, and only Olga holds the key. And did I mention that they’re isolated to an island accessible only by boat? Once Olga and Isaac are left alone, a game of cat and mouse ensues as Olga’s psychological state worsens and Isaac discovers the secrets buried within the house’s crumbling walls.
The whole premise of the film is one of the creepiest and most exciting concepts I’ve encountered in a while. When I read the film’s description, I was so very on board with seeing how the whole thing unravels. And it doesn’t disappoint — every new detail about the babysitting job adds to a whole pile of No, and it shows how desperate Isaac is that he still accepts the gig. All for £200 a day.
As the film progresses, Isaac’s situation becomes more bleak, and it becomes difficult to imagine a way out for this poor fella. I love a good atmospheric, bleak horror film, and Caveat certainly scratched an itch I’ve been feeling. The tone and the visuals are just so dreary — it carries that Irish Gothic vibe — but there’s an unsettling core to the film that seeps a sense of dread through every scene.
Because of Isaac’s memory loss, we end up learning every new bit of information when he does, as his memory slowly returns. It’s an intriguing way to watch the story unfold as any new information could (and probably should) be suspect and we’re not expected — or required — to have the full backstory. We’re running right along with Isaac as he stumbles his way through, not sure who or what to trust. There’s also an incredibly creepy drumming rabbit toy that remains a bit of a mystery, which is actually quite perfect. Not all questions are answered, nor do they need to be.
The music (by composing veteran Richard G. Mitchell) is hair-raising, foreboding, and completely different from Mitchell’s prior work. As I understand from my recent chat with McCarthy (interview coming soon!), Caveat was the first horror film that Mitchell has scored, and he was quite instrumental in the making of the feature. The two worked hand-in-hand to create a film that wades through deep, chilling waters.
Between the pacing, score, and visuals, there is a heavy sense of dread throughout the film. Every scary moment gradually turns the dial of terror up to a 10. Instead of using jump scares, McCarthy knows that a slow reveal can be even more harrowing. And he’s right — it works so incredibly well that the ending of the film still haunts me.
Caveat uses minimal dialogue and relies on suspense rather than violence. Perhaps it’s this still quiet that pulls you in even deeper. The film has a steady thrum of unknowable danger, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in it all. Every new moment Isaac must face in the house puts his situation deeper and deeper into “nope” territory, but he literally cannot leave. It’s the purest sense of house arrest — he’s physically chained to the house — and it makes it all feel so very hopeless.
The film is wonderfully economical with its characters — there’s no wasteful cannon fodder in the limited cast list — and though you spend so much time with Isaac while knowing so little about him, you’re immediately concerned for him thanks to French’s wide-eyed, restrained performance. You can feel his worried fear, and know that there’s nothing he can do to alleviate the pressure. McCarthy takes this passive, gentle character and puts him to the test to see if he can remain non-violent throughout, and still find a way to survive.
Caveat is a strong first feature, and with it, McCarthy proves that he’s a name to watch for. His critically acclaimed short films (How Olin Lost His Eye, He Dies At the End, and many more) demonstrate the same dark aesthetic that I loved about Caveat, and I’m certainly curious to see if he carries these themes forward. They work well for him, and they create an atmosphere that’s inherently scary before you even get to the horror bits.
You can catch Caveat on Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand on June 3, 2021. And if you appreciate a good brooding, atmospheric, chilling horror film, I highly recommend you do. Click here to view the trailer.