3.5 out of 5 stars

Irish writer-director Damian Mc Carthy’s first feature is so thematically rich and so disquieting that its narrative weaknesses, which would be severely damaging to a less imaginative film, are only a minor irritation rather than a fatal flaw. The first half, where Mc Carthy sets up a situation for his protagonist, Isaac (Jonathan French), which is redolent with threat so ambiguous we can’t guess what’s coming next, does work significantly better than the second—where he tries to fill in back story and resolve questions without quite succeeding in satisfying those who want things neatly tied up. But the whole is undeniably memorable.

The era is uncertain, though it may be several decades ago, given some design details and the absence of mobile phones (which if they existed in this world would surely play a critical role). So is the location, though it’s presumably Ireland, as Caveat was shot near Bantry in County Cork.

Isaac’s a man without obvious roots or commitments, recently released from hospital after an unspecified accident which left him with amnesia. Then his supposed friend, Moe (Ben Caplan), whose friendship seems superficial and self-motivated, offers him a job looking after his niece Olga (Leila Sykes) for a few days in an isolated house.

Olga has serious mental health issues. her father committed suicide and her mother is missing. The house is on a small island in a lake, and Isaac can’t swim. And it also turns out that Isaac will be required to wear a kind of harness-and-chain outfit while staying there, to reassure the anxious Olga that he can’t reach her bed. (If Caveat hadn’t been made in 2017 this might be taken as a dark reference to social distancing.)

We’ve also seen—though Isaac doesn’t yet know this—that Olga is prone to inexplicable nosebleeds, is partial to carving holes in the walls in search of whatever lies behind, and owns (or maybe is owned by) a decidedly nightmarish toy rabbit or hare which beats a toy drum apparently of its own volition.

This rabbit is perhaps the most prominent unexplained element in Caveat. In one respect its presence is unfortunate because there’s no convincing rationale or even hallucinatory explanation for its drumming, so it must be supernatural. Without the rabbit, we wouldn’t be sure if there were any haunting or possession going on at all, and perhaps the movie would be better for it. On the other hand, it’s such a wonderfully creepy realisation of the stuffed toy horror trope that it’s difficult not to relish.

In any case, although the job can hardly be described as attractive, Isaac’s desperate enough to take it and is left on the island with Olga. Before departing, Moe offers a comment (“You ever hear a fox crying? Sounds like a teenage girl screaming”) which is not only an amusing piece of misdirection, but in retrospect also offers an additional sinister angle on the never-quite-clear story of Olga and Moe’s family: how exactly would Moe know what a teenage girl screaming in fear sounds like?

By far the biggest roles are those of French and Sykes, and both excel. At first, she seems hostile and surprisingly assured but impossible to read, and does far more with near-silence than some horror performers do with histrionics. French is more vocal as Isaac, but only slightly so, and the way he gives such a passive impression even when active says much about him. Though Isaac doesn’t seem a mysterious character when we first meet him, he soon becomes one… so, at the same time, our sympathies tip slightly toward Sykes’s Olga.

Both roles are minimally written (this isn’t a movie of big speeches or emotional catharses), but in their low-key way this duo’s performances are an essential part of Caveat. At some points it’s even a true two-hander, with the Isaac-Olga interplay coming to the fore while broader questions of the house and the past recede. The latter is oddly reminiscent of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz/Anthony Shaffer film Sleuth (1973), of all things. Caplan as Moe also has a nicely unpleasant air.

Meanwhile, there’s surprising and effective employment of flashbacks, good use of a telephone (although the police could surely trace its number if Isaac called them, which is a slightly problematic plot flaw), and an eerie score by Richard G. Mitchell which doesn’t stray far from genre convention but serves the atmosphere well. Production designer Damian Draven contributes much to the film with the oppressively dank, dilapidated, mud-toned house, and nearly every scene is an interior.

At least for the first half (the second is more varied and murkily-lit), Mc Carthy and cinematographer Kieran Fitzgerald opt for a resolutely simple visual style where the object of interest is often in the centre of the frame, or the composition is symmetrical around a central group. The effect is to focus our attention on what’s in plain sight, quite justifiably because there are hardly any jump scares in Caveat, and lead us away from the idea that there are lurking clues which would reveal the truth if only we identified them.

Much of the power of Caveat lies in the way the truth is never fully known. Neither Isaac with his amnesia, nor Olga with her disturbances, are reliable sources. Moe, too, seems highly untrustworthy, working to an unrevealed agenda. Flashbacks reveal a more complex entanglement of these three characters in the past than expected, especially where Isaac’s concerned, but there’s no way of being sure we’re getting the whole story.

An assured debut for Mc Carthy that’s led to several critics suggesting he might do great things with a bigger budget, Caveat isn’t the straightforward haunted house flick one might be expecting. It’s more concerned with the things that haunt the minds of the living inhabitants than things going bump in the cellar, and in this respect it has quite a bit in common with Remi Weekes’ superlative His House (2020).

Like His House, it touches on so many potent ideas—like family secrets, suppressed and emerging memories (clearly represented by the walls which Olga attacks and the cellar which Isaac explores), the abuse of females (something with specific contemporary connotations in Ireland), perhaps even changing attitudes toward masculinity (Isaac is both responsible for Olga, and enchained to protect her)—that it can hardly help striking many chords, and Mc Carthy’s direction ensures it does so in a consistently alluring way.

Certainly, its ultimate opacity will disappoint some viewers, even if they’ve been drawn in by its pervasive sense that something awful has happened, or is about to happen… or both. Guy Lodge in Variety put it well, writing “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.”

Maybe, then, it’s not a film that entirely satisfies. But equally, its pervasive sense of wrongness would be undermined by a comprehensive conclusion; the not-knowing is a strength, putting the viewer in the same position as Isaac. There may or may not be a haunting in the conventional sense in Caveat, but a haunting film it certainly is.

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UK | 2020 | 88 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Damian Mc Carthy.
starring: Jonathan French, Leila Sykes & Ben Caplan.