This impressive Irish-set debut from writer and director Damian Mc Carthy occupies a particularly creepy liminal space between ghost story and psychological drama. It is a minimalist tale about memory and loss and how both permeate a space. It becomes overly convoluted as its puzzle box plot is assembled, but it is frequently genuinely frightening in a way that few modern haunted house tales manage to be.
Isaac (Jonathan French) is a drifter suffering from partial memory loss who is convinced by his former landlord (Ben Caplan) to keep an eye on his niece Olga (Leila Sykes) for five days. This slightly odd request is made odder still by the fact that the girl lives alone in an abandoned farmhouse on a small island following the apparent suicide of her father. The offer of €200 per day sweetens the deal, but there is a further condition. Isaac must consent to be chained up so his movements are restricted and so he can’t venture into the room of the traumatised and paranoid Olga. As he spends time in the house, he begins to regain some of his memory and he realises this may not be the first time he has been in the house.
Caveat is a work of pure atmosphere moulded around the brilliant design of the house itself. Like the recent Relic, the physical and psychic space occupied by the story’s location makes it almost a character in its own right. The idea of the home as a place of safety poisoned by something malevolent is as old as horror itself, but here is the degradation of the house mirroring the mental decline of its characters. It’s as if the house is crumbling in sympathy in order that it can shake free its secrets. While those secrets remain hidden, Caveat excels. Once past the rather feeble justification for Isaac allowing himself to be constricted, the essential tension of the setup is handled brilliantly. We know Isaac is trapped, and we know little of Olga’s character beyond frequent lapses into catatonia, leaving her an unpredictable quantity. The rattle of Isaac’s chains is a lovely subversion of an old ghost story trope, but if there is something lurking in the shadows of the creaking house, then our bewildered protagonist is never out of its earshot.
As things begin to settle down into a psychological chess match between Isaac and Olga, some of the initial intrigue of the setup is unfortunately lost, although Mc Carthy consistently finds new ways to utilise the various ominous nooks and crannies of the house. Olga is also the owner of the most disturbing toy since the marionette in Possum: a glaring, moth-eaten rabbit that looks like a demonic Hartley Hare and who clatters away on a drum at seemingly random intervals. Is it a warning, a threat, or does the drumming work like a Geiger counter and indicate that Isaac is getting close to some horrendous revelation?
Despite the film never quite living up to its early promise, it is still a finely-tuned exercise in sustained dread which manages to scare the viewer organically, without resorting to constant jump scares. Instead Mc Carthy takes that anticipation and repeatedly denies such a release. There are things achieved with little more than darkness, a torch, and an enclosed space that leave a vivid imprint thanks to French’s restrained, but tightly-coiled performance and Mc Carthy’s own sense of exactly how long to hold a shot in the edit. The muted, almost sepia tone of Kieran Fitzgerald‘s cinematography is an obvious stylistic choice, but one that undoubtedly suits the sense of dank, stale, and suffocating tension. Caveat may be something of a curate’s egg in terms of its narrative contrivances, but the almost crushing atmosphere and some exquisite moments of sheer, primal terror will linger a lot longer than some mild disappointment in its storytelling.
Available on Shudder from Thu 3 Jun 2021