Caveat (2020)

Caveat first published by Through the Trees

A young woman in pyjamas (Leila Sykes) walks into a dimly lit, water-stained room, and as her nose bleeds, she holds up a creepy-looking old toy bunny which starts beating its drum when pointed towards a door. She heads through the door and down to the basement where, once again guided by the bunny’s beating, she goes up to a wall and saws a hole into it. From this opening sequence to Caveat, it is clear that we are in a neurotic, surreal Wonderland, conjured all at once by Kieran Fitzgerald’s skew-whiff cinematography, Damian Draven’s mustily atmospheric production design and the irrational interplay between girl and toy. It is also clear that we have no idea what on earth is going on. For in his feature debut, writer/director Damian Mc Carthy – whose 2010 short He Dies At The End defines absurdist tension – will take his sweet time, carefully parcelling out narrative information in a film which has long sections of dialogue-free visual storytelling

Left with no long-term memory after an accident, Isaac (Jonathan French) is offered a lot of money by Moe Barret (Ben Caplan) for a few days’ work ‘babysitting’ Moe’s niece Olga – the young woman from the opening scene. Olga keeps going to the isolated house where her mad mother disappeared some time ago and her father recently committed suicide, and Moe wants someone to keep an eye on the girl, who has psychological problems and regularly enters catatonic states. Given the high fee, Isaac speculates that there is a catch, or caveat, and he is not wrong: first, the house is on an island (and Isaac cannot swim); second, owing to Olga’s privacy and paranoia, Moe insists that Isaac be locked into an ancient leather harness on a chain that will limit his movements to only certain parts of the house (excluding Olga’s bedroom); and third, after Moe has left, Isaac learns that the extremely suspicious Olga is armed with a crossbow. 

Caveat is a puzzle box of a film, letting Isaac tests his new environs and his gradually emerging memories, even as he must overcome a succession of problems while under considerable restraint. The suited-up Isaac looks like a Victorian mountaineer, only with his explorations confined to bleak domestic spaces. He – and we with him – follow a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a bigger picture of what has happened, and is happening, in this haunted, increasingly hostile house, where bodies are buried and secrets are locked up. As Isaac carries out his unwilling adventurism in the house’s interiors, only the stifling crawlspaces of Weston Terray’s Precarious (2020) come close to this film’s ever-tightening claustrophobia. 

There is a complicated crime or two to be solved, but along the way, there is also some very spooky business with paintings on the wall, lots of cat-and-mouse in the dark, and terrifying toys with lives of their own. All this might sound like pure horror cliché, but it is so superbly crafted, and so unpredictably pieced together, that it brings the viewer along for its weird trip right until the very end, and even then leaves us at a character-driven impasse. This is a brooding film, rich in mood and full of oneiric imagery – and so sophisticated in its layered storytelling, and so disorienting in its unhinged eccentricity, that you simply will not believe that it is Mc Carthy’s first feature, and will not be able to wait to see what he does next. 

strap: Damian Mc Carthy’s Caveat is a claustrophobic puzzle box of a haunted house mystery, told with restraint both metaphorical and literal.

© Anton Bitel