2020s

Review: Damian Mc Carthy’s ‘Caveat’

Caveat Movie Film

“There’s got to be more to it than that,” argues Jonathan French’s Isaac in Caveat, upon being presented with a suspiciously easy proposition: all he must do to earn a decent chunk of change is keep his friend’s psychologically challenged niece company in an isolated country home for a few days. Such is the initial setup for Damian Mc Carthy’s feature debut, a devious single location chiller dripping with intrigue and barely disguised menace. Naturally, there are many, er, caveats to the deal, most of which don’t reveal themselves until poor Isaac has already rocked up to the dilapidated shack and realizes, first and foremost, that it’s on an island. Isaac can’t swim, as he informs the creepily-detached Barret (Ben Caplan). However, considering what’s lurking within the walls of the twisted family home, that’s the least of his problems. 

Caveat opens with a delightfully deranged sequence involving a bloodied young woman and a teddy bear that plays the drums. She silently wanders around the house, using the rhythmic beat to guide her towards… something. In the basement, the woman cuts a hole into a piece of wood and peeks through. It’s a startling introduction, dread seeping out of every pore, that chills the blood but is crucially left cryptic. Even when this character is revealed to be Olga (Leila Sykes) — Barret’s niece and Isaac’s companion for however long he can last — things only get murkier, as Mc Carthy is confident enough not to over-explain his wicked premise. 

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Caveat Movie Film

The film is strange but not prohibitively so. When Isaac learns that he must wear a leather harness, with an attached chain, while in the house to prevent him from straying into certain rooms, including Olga’s, he refuses at first. But Barret slowly and methodically convinces the desperate loner, who’s recently recovered from a mysterious illness, to just suck it up for the money. French, with his sad eyes and marvelous beard, resembles a young Sean Harris. In fact, Matthew Holness’s soul-destroying Possum, in which Harris starred, shares a similar color palette with Caveat, one which favors greys and dark browns and gives it a feeling of utter hopelessness and despair as a result. The only color that really pops in this harsh environment is red, as in the color of blood or the discarded jacket that Isaac discovers. 

Mc Carthy starkly subverts several classic horror motifs, including the bleeding nose and the creepy basement. Caveat is increasingly difficult to get a read on, to its great credit, with each new revelation somehow making things muddier. This is a story built predominantly on a game of cat and mouse between a well-meaning normie and someone who may or may not be completely unhinged, but underneath everything, it’s considerably more than that. Caveat is like a strange cross between the Elijah Wood-starring Come to Daddy and the recent folk horror film Sator, which should offer some idea of its tone. Mc Carthy consistently plays with the audience’s expectations in much the same way he messes with shadows, suggesting someone or something is always lurking in the darkness, waiting to pounce at any moment. 

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Caveat Movie Film

Shot in County Cork, Ireland, Caveat takes place mostly within the bounds of the house itself, but there is some lovely exterior footage that highlights the natural beauty of the surrounding environment, too. A sequence showing Barret and Isaac rowing over to the island stands out, especially as it emphasizes how exposed they are in this tiny boat suspended in a deathly dark body of water. The cinematography by Kieran Fitzgerald is engagingly rich and textured. Walls appear to be peeling, their remnants gathering in little piles of dust, which make the edges of the picture fuzzier. Although Caveat’s atmosphere is claustrophobic, the camera gamely roams in and out of each room, like a rat in a maze, while a score composed almost entirely of echoing, breathy voices, and sharp violins (by Richard G. Mitchell) ensures discomfort is a given.  

The sound design is impeccable in Caveat, with the reverberating noise of Isaac’s chains being dragged across the floor giving a real tactility to his bizarre predicament. Likewise, an old-school intercom system provides a further layer of intrigue when crackly messages are being swapped back and forth. Circles abound throughout, Mc Carthy displaying an innate understanding of how terrifying it is to watch a character stick their head into an unknown place, but Caveat is light on jump scares, favoring tension over senseless shocks. Still, this is a very scary film, one that seeps into the bones. Mc Carthy, who also tackled the edit, has a keen eye for warped corners and dark doorways. He presents the location — a terrific find in itself — as a property haunted by humans and ghosts alike, sick with its own history, as represented by Olga covering her eyes and refusing to even look at her surroundings. There’s an intimacy to Caveat that is downright suffocating.

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Caveat Movie Film

Caveat’s performances are naturalistic and utterly believable, which compounds the effect. French and Sykes, who spend much of the film in an increasingly antagonistic tête-à-tête, play well to each other’s strengths. Neither is necessarily stealing the spotlight, making Caveat an ideal display for the gifted up-and-comers. Although there are plenty of spooky moments scattered throughout, Mc Carthy’s film is thoughtful and thought-provoking. The resolution isn’t the point, with the writer-director more concerned with building an inescapably discomfiting mood than setting up a whole rash of sequels featuring his creepy doll. The drumming bunny is a diabolical creation, its eyes growing angrier as the story drags on, but Mc Carthy thankfully doesn’t rely on the toy, Annabelle-style. His focus is on the scars inflicted by family, over years of neglect and abuse, which is far scarier than anything a demonic teddy could manage.

Deeply unsettling and profoundly frightening, Caveat is a remarkably assured debut for Mc Carthy and a real showcase for the talents of its small cast, particularly French as the tortured protagonist. The movie is not exactly an easy watch, but it sucks one into its orbit in much the same manner Isaac is tethered to the house. Escaping from Caveat’s clutches proves just as difficult. 

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.