Director: Damian Mc Carthy
Screenplay: Damian Mc Carthy
Starring: Jonathan French, Ben Caplan, Leila Sykes
Year: 2020
Duration: 88 mins
Country: Ireland 
BBFC Certification: 18

Award winning Irish filmmaker Damian Mc Carthy certainly has a degree of pedigree behind him. The winner of numerous awards for his short film work, including an International Indie Short Film Award and a Cutting Edge Award for Best Emerging Horror Director, it is fair to say that there might be some anticipation surrounding Caveat, his feature film debut, which will premiere on Shudder on 3rd June. Does Caveat herald the arrival of a major new talent or does it fall somewhat short of the promise heralded by its talented young director?

After a creepy prologue, which sees someone wondering around a dark, dilapidated house accompanied by a terrifying drumming bunny doll, Caveat (via a beautiful match cut) launches swiftly into its main plot with barely a pause for breath. As initial set-ups go, we find ourselves firmly in ghost story territory. Shifty looking landlord Barrett (Ben Caplan) persuades Isaac (Jonathan French) to spend a few days at a remote, lonely house in order to look after his mentally ill niece, Olga (Leila Sykes). So far, so simple. Yet there is a caveat (bet you didn’t see that one coming). Once at the house, Barrett asks Isaac to wear a leather vest and chain, which will not only restrict him to certain rooms but also, it seems, make escape from the house impossible. Once Isaac is chained up, Barrett departs, leaving Isaac to wait out the next several days with only Olga for company…

Caveat is at its weakest during these opening fifteen or so minutes, never more so than when Barrett asks Isaac to don that leather vest. If the state of the house Isaac is required to spend time in (plus its remote location) didn’t provoke some serious questions, then surely being asked to chain himself up would cause him to run for the hills? Yet the fact that Isaac does agree to essentially become a prisoner without too much protest painfully stretches credulity, where it seems Mc Carthy is desperately trying to insert a ‘cool’ plot device at the expense of logic and believability. Yet if you are able to accept the vaguely preposterous set up (and you absolutely should) then Caveat swiftly rewards its audience with chills and atmosphere to spare.

Be in no doubt here – Caveat is a horror film that survives on atmosphere and atmosphere alone.  Once Isaac is left alone in the house, things generally start off well, as he slowly navigates his surroundings and meets Olga, who spends most of the time sequestered in her bedroom armed with a crossbow. The film works brilliantly within this simple set up, as Mc Carthy skilfully piles on the tension and allows a creeping sense of dread to drape itself over his audience. Yet as the film goes on, the plot unspools into a rather convoluted mess. To say anything more would potentially ruin things, but it is fair to say that the middle of the film badly lags and the plot developments that emerge later on make everything feel dreary, leaden and confusing.

In the hands of a lesser director, it would be easy to cast Caveat aside and forget about it. Yet Mc Carthy thankfully imbues his film with a unique, filthy atmosphere that makes it difficult to tear your eyes away from the screen even as the plot occasionally threatens to send you to sleep.

One of the key stars here is the house itself. Looking like it has emerged into reality out of the grimy, decaying aesthetic of a Silent Hill computer game, it simply looks fantastic, with crumbling walls, peeling wallpaper, creepily lit hallways and stark, cold basements, all united by a potent sense of decay that means you can practically smell the mildew and damp leaking off the screen. The grubby production design permeates the atmosphere of the film itself. Caveat consistently maintains a bleakly slow sense of apprehension and foreboding that more than help to make up for any weakness in its story, coupled with a few perfectly judged jump scares that are sure to keep audiences on their toes. 

Yet Mc Carthy saves the best for last. While Caveat feels tense for most of its running time, it never truly feels scary….until the last fifteen minutes, that is. It is here that the film’s slow burn atmosphere suddenly ignites into an horrendously unnerving claustrophobic nightmare. Mc Carthy brilliantly handles the final scenes with skill and restraint (aided by some of the creepiest prosthetics/make up that I have seen in years) knowing just when to cut and when to let his camera linger…

Despite the great atmosphere and a wonderful lead performance by Jonathan French, Caveat’s opaque and puzzling plot means that Mc Carthy may not have hit the ball out of the park, but his work here certainly marks him out as horror director of some note. Give in to Caveat’s slow burn chills and it eventually achieves something all too rarely seen in modern horror – a genuinely nightmarish quality that will linger long in the memory…and even longer in your dreams.

Caveat will be streaming exclusively on Shudder from 3rd June.

3.5Overall Score
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