Many a horror film has to get its audience past the critical “now why would you do that” moment, where the plot’s continuation hinges on the protagonist making a brazenly terrible decision — entering that obviously doomed location, taking in that plainly psychotic stranger, failing to kill their tormentor when the opportunity presents itself — as the viewer yells at them do the opposite.
“Caveat,” a creatively cash-strapped debut from Irish writer-director Damian Mc Carthy, wisely gets its own such moment over with in the first 10 minutes, but it’s a doozy. Amnesia-afflicted drifter Isaac (fine newcomer Jonathan French) is enlisted by shady stranger Barrett (Ben Caplan) to look after his psychologically disturbed niece Olga (Leila Sykes) in a decrepit house on a deserted rural island following her father’s recent suicide. If that weren’t tempting enough, Isaac also has to be harnessed and chained to a post in the house for the sake of Olga’s mental security. He takes the job. Now why would you do that?
“Caveat” never persuasively answers that question, but soon piles up so many other points of curiosity and confusion that the initial credibility hump is soon forgotten. That’s to its credit. Mc Carthy serves up a generically foreboding premise and pulls off several efficiently traditional jump scares in this variation on a haunted-house formula, but it’s the shape-shifting mind games of his own narrative that most unnerve the viewer, as seemingly fixed plot points of who is under threat — and when, and why, and so on — keep darting out of sight. The result is finally more intriguing than it is rewarding: It’s hard to keep an audience invested in your story as you steadily strip them of their bearings. But there’s enough tingly, tightly-budgeted atmosphere and witty genre gumption in this Shudder acquisition to make one wonder what Mc Carthy could do on a looser, more expensive leash.
“There’s got to be more to it than that,” Isaac says after Barrett offers him a generous sum for this unusual adult babysitting job, upon which the title “Caveat” is stamped on the screen in large, scratchy capitals. (Sure enough, the creepy stipulations of the harness, chain and abandoned island have yet to be brought up.) Mc Carthy knows his way around a morbid visual joke, and by this point he’s already introduced the film’s niftiest and most sustained one: a mangy toy rabbit that Olga carries with her like a talisman in the film’s puzzling prologue, with hostile, glassy eyes and an attached drum that it starts furiously tapping at random intervals. Looking for all the world like a nightmarish Henry Selick redesign of the Energizer mascot, it’s either a detector of bad spirits or a conjuror of them, and Mc Carthy evidently delights in its cutely cursed presence, without ever offering any further clues as to its place in proceedings.
Explanations of any kind are thin after an initial flurry of apparent exposition. It’s once Isaac is chained in place that things start to get as murky as Kieran Fitzgerald’s appropriately dank, 50-shades-of-clay lensing. Olga alternates between episodes of stony catatonia and skulking around the house with a large crossbow, but is her reluctant guardian her prey, or are other immediately threatening forces at work in this grim family house, where the electricity routinely cuts out, the soft furnishings are all the color of dried blood, and unhappy family secrets aren’t all that are buried in its walls? As soon as we’ve unpicked some of the mystery, however, Mc Carthy reorients us once more, playing on Isaac’s memory loss and hopping back in time. His variable facial hair may keep us abreast of the film’s relative chronology, but everything else is open to question, including supernatural possibilities that loom in and out of view like passing, unidentified shadows.
If all this snaky evasion and elaboration does eventually eat away at the film’s anxious tension — as audiences are unlikely to agree on what, or who, they’re actually scared of — the scuzzy niftiness of its construction continues to impress. Mc Carthy, who shot the film in 2017 and gradually funded its post-production, makes a virtue of his budgetary restrictions, using claustrophobic underlighting and confined interiors to fray the viewer’s nerves even as the story expands into abstract realms.
Hugo Parvery’s sound design, with its clattery range of unexplained moans, whistles and screams, is a consistent asset. Early on, in one of the film’s most flagrant red flags, we’re told that the cries of a fox and those of a teenage girl are indistinguishable. (What of a possessed mechanical bunny, though?) At its most itchy and unsettling, “Caveat” leaves us wishing the options were that straightforward.