Here’s a free bit of life advice: If someone offers you money to babysit their disturbed adult niece in the remote County Cork house where her father recently killed himself, don’t take it. Isaac (memorable newcomer Jonathan French) knows there has to be a catch, but paying gigs are few and far between for an institutionalized drifter who suffers from memory loss, and his potential employer Moe (Ben Caplan) claims to be an old friend. It’s worth noting that he doesn’t claim to be a very good one.
As we already suspect — and as Isaac learns the hard way — the title of Irish filmmaker Damian Mc Carthy’s “Caveat” wryly undersells the dangers at hand. The first red flag is the house is located on the middle of its own tiny island in the middle of nowhere. Even more alarming: Isaac reveals that he doesn’t know how to swim.
It’s the second asterisk that would probably inspire most people, no matter how cash-strapped, to seek other opportunities: Moe’s twentysomething niece Olga (an opaque yet believably dangerous Leila Sykes) has a fear of being attacked in her sleep, so Isaac will be leashed to a thick chain that doesn’t extend far enough to access her bedroom. Or the toilet. Oh, and the key that unlocks the medieval leather vest that Isaac is forced to wear as a harness? You don’t even want to know where it’s hidden. “Every job has a uniform,” Moe insists.
For a horror movie about a man who’s tethered in place, “Caveat” requires a lot of slack to accept its premise and collect its three major characters in the same place. Even so, Mc Carthy’s debut is so eerie and unnerving moment by moment that the devious design largely snuffs out the strained logic. That wicked sense of tension doesn’t pave all the vagaries of Mc Carthy’s plot, which is a puzzle that grows harder to solve with each new piece. That’s frustrating in a film with an ambiguous relationship to the supernatural, and is often lit (or not) in a way that makes it difficult to see what’s happening. But if Olga’s mysteries are still out of reach after the movie’s befuddling last shot, the mildewed claustrophobia of her super creepy island house only sinks deeper under your skin the longer you’re trapped there.
To say that “Caveat” doesn’t call attention to its financial constraints wouldn’t quite capture the resourcefulness of Mc Carthy’s filmmaking, or speak to why his debut feature is such a vividly frightening reminder of what a skilled horror director can accomplish on a shoestring budget (Mc Carthy shot it in 2017, and worked a 9-5 job to pay for post-production costs as he incurred them). Every aspect of this movie is so damp with the febrile sweat of a bad dream that you can almost smell the peeling wallpaper and dilapidated floorboards; Damian Draven’s production design makes the whole place feel as if it has already drowned in the small lake that surrounds it.
The opening sequence anticipates Mc Carthy’s ability to go from zero to “I guess I’m watching the rest of this scene through my fingers” in a split second, as Olga sleepwalks across the creaky floorboards while holding a nightmarish toy rabbit in front of her like it’s a flashlight or a metal detector or a cross to ward off vampires. The seemingly possessed doll holds a small drum in its paws that it plays whenever dark secrets are near, either warning Olga away from such things or maybe waking them up (the answer is unclear, but it’s hair-raising stuff all the same). Later, Olga finds a crossbow that she uses to hunt Isaac around the house during the inventive cat-and-mouse game that highlights the second act.
Such elements hint at the horrific events that took place in this house, the truth of which tend to shrink away whenever Mc Carthy shines a light in its direction. It’s safe to assume that Isaac’s amnesia isn’t forgotten, even if Mc Carthy’s erratic flashbacks proves more destabilizing than his film can afford. Olga’s absent mother casts a long shadow with her affinity for creepy symbols and shapes, which layer a sparse yet traditional horror backstory onto a movie that otherwise defaults to a Lynchian dream logic. Cinematographer Kieran Fitzgerald opts for a sunken palette that errs closer to the muddiness of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” although chains, dolls, and a diarrhea-brown color scheme are enough to suggest a more artful take on the “Saw” aesthetic.
“Caveat” exists in a liminal space between genres, which is fitting for a film about the skeletons that might hide inside the walls of an old house. However, Mc Carthy’s mix-and-match approach reveals the story’s need for a more solid foundation. His judicious approach to jump scares results in a rare degree of sustained anxiety and he has an instinct to stare at things that other jolt-based horror wouldn’t touch; this results in a handful of moments that pay off better than the plot itself. But the darkness in which Isaac stumbles for minutes on end is as impenetrable as the darkness he brings to this awful place. Even at its most willfully obtuse, “Caveat” leaves you convinced that satisfying answers are just out of sight.
Mc Carthy stirs memory, revenge, family curses, and other fine ingredients into a thin stew that ultimately smells better than it tastes, but the raw talent on display is strong enough to warrant a look. Whatever happened in Olga’s house before Isaac got there is ultimately less exciting than the idea that it could earn Mc Carthy the chance — and the resources — to take us somewhere in the future.
“Caveat” will be available to stream on Shudder starting Thursday, June 3.