Caveat teases potential and boasts an impressive setup, but ultimately loses its thread after this initial stretch.
One of the challenges of the modern horror film is creating a plausible enough reason for placing characters in potentially outlandish scenarios. When done successfully, it’s the difference between yelling at the people on screen for making dumb decisions versus feeling creeping dread at some inevitable calamity. So credit writer/director Damian McCarthy for toeing this particular fine line in his new film Caveat, at least for awhile. Down on his luck and desperate for money, Isaac (Jonathan French) finds himself accepting the oddest of jobs. Approached by a man named Barrett (Ben Caplan) to watch over his psychologically troubled niece, Isaac agrees to travel to a remote, seemingly abandoned home, accessible only via a boat that stays tethered to the shore. Once in the home, he goes even further, begrudgingly putting on a harness that is locked onto his torso and tied up with a bulky chain. The young woman, Olga (Leila Sykes), doesn’t feel comfortable with strangers in the house, and the harness restricts visitors to only certain rooms. It’s a series of obvious red flags, inevitably inviting incredulous guffaws from an audience, and yet McCarthy manages to make the set up work. Isaac is so disheveled, so clearly damaged himself, that his need for money papers over what should be an obvious flight response.
Once Isaac has entered the home and adjusted to the harness, the strange occurrences begin. Something is clearly not right, but McCarthy is coy with any potential supernatural elements. These early goings are quite strong, as McCarthy plays with shifting perspectives between Isaac and Olga, the camera creeping down halls and peering into dilapidated rooms. Isaac has only basic biographical information about Olga — that her mother went missing a year prior and that her father committed suicide in the basement of the very house they’re now in. Leaning into the thriller aspects of this scenario, McCarthy raises doubts as to the circumstances of both parents’ disappearance/demise, while tentatively raising the specter of suspicion over both Olga and eventually Barrett, who Isaac periodically calls to check in with. What’s unfortunate, then, is that Caveat is all setup, and despite some clever visual touches and atmosphere to spare, McCarthy begins to lose the thread once he introduces a long flashback that fills in Isaac’s backstory. He and Barrett and Olga have all met before, even though Isaac doesn’t remember it, and Olga’s mother isn’t really missing. A cat-and-mouse struggle ensues, and as Isaac and Olga each take turns gaining the upper hand, McCarthy finally decides to pull the trigger on the horror aspects of his ostensible horror film. Caveat is well-made, and the cast is uniformly fine, but this is a short film stretched to feature length, and long, lingering shots of eerie doorways and dank basements hardly fill in all the gaps or prove sufficiently compensatory. There’s a considerable swing here, but it’s a miss all the same.
You can currently stream Damian McCarthy‘s Caveat on Shudder.