Isaac (Jonathan French) is having trouble recalling his recent past after a traumatic event but friend Moe (Ben Caplan) is interested in helping Isaac get back on his feet – both financially and psychologically – with the offer of a profitable five-day piece of work which involves keeping an eye on Moe’s niece Olga (Leila Sykes).
Olga won’t leave the remote house in which her father killed and Moe wants someone around to make sure she doesn’t do anything that may cause her harm. After initial misgivings, Isaac takes the gig, unaware that there are various, ahem, caveats, the most bizarre of which involves Olga’s carer having to wear an uncomfortable-looking restraint jacket which comes with its own shackles.
Yes, the chain is long enough for Isaac to be able to have the run of a substantial proportion of the place but he certainly can’t leave and with Olga’s fragile mental state on the verge of shattering, that could pose a problem for them both.
Writer/director Damian McCarthy’s debut feature takes horror tropes with which we’re all extremely familiar – an isolated house, strange noises, a dash of possible witchcraft, potentially unreliable narrators, a murky tragedy – and imbues them with a confident, unhurried build of tension which would impress from a seasoned horror filmmaker, let alone someone for whom this is a first full-length foray.
The development of the three main protagonists in the first act is intriguing and interesting, leaving you in complete doubt as to who the main threat is in the piece. Olga seems overly attached to her crossbow and may not take much of a nudge to decide to use it but Isaac’s role as babysitter may not be as it first appears either, the gaps in his memory slowly filling to hint that perhaps he’s responsible for something dreadful. And what of Moe? Why would he offer someone so much money for a task he could possibly carry out himself?
The fact that much of the movie is either a two-hander between Olga and Isaac or extended scenes in which those characters wander the house individually, yet still manages to provoke the curiosity and crank up the suspense, is remarkable. McCarthy knows when to throw in a flashback or drip feed a clue to the viewer so the interest in the proceedings rarely flags.
French and Sykes give splendid performances, both walking the fine line between sympathetic and dangerous and avoiding a plunge into obvious psycho territory. Just when you think you know who you should be rooting for, the script throws in a left turn which makes you question the side you’ve just taken. Isaac and Olga are deeply damaged but the plot takes its time over its reveals and although the final show of hands doesn’t pull out a showy twist it doesn’t really need to, leading to a prolonged, nightmarish sequence involving something behind a wall. I really don’t want to spoil it but you may be digging your nails into the arm of your chair as you wait for the jump scare.
Much of the fear generated here comes from what might be lurking around the corner or behind the door and the sound design adds to the general feeling of having your nerves shredded. The house is also a terrifying character in itself, a decrepit, fetid, resolutely unstately pile full of creepy furnishings, unnerving artwork and a drumming toy which I would have chucked out of the window the first time I’d encountered it.
With a fairly recognisable set-up and its anxious protagonists, you may go into the opening minutes of Caveat feeling you’ve seen this before but you’re highly unlikely to have seen it carried off in quite this way. For every familiar plot beat there are three or four which you won’t have expected as the story heads into some extremely unusual and, of course, dark places (both figuratively and literally). Even the resolution, which is one of the most relatively normal things about the entire movie, leaves the viewer with its own typically enigmatic shot and an opportunity to soak up the outlandish atmosphere one last time.
With limited resources, a tiny cast, an economical approach to dialogue and some pleasingly odd decision in terms of the direction of travel as regards the story, Caveat takes its disparate, uncanny elements and plummets the viewer into the twisted subconscious of its subjects with an often overwhelming sense of dread. This is a dark, demented delight and Damian McCarthy is a name to which we should pay close attention.
STREAMING EXCLUSIVELY ON SHUDDER 3 JUNE 2021