If you’re in the market for a Friday night scare then feel free to check out this series each week. Every Friday I’ll be delving into my back catalogue of reviews and sharing some of my favourite scary movies. Each month there will be a theme to my picks, and as June is the first month of this site, I am dedicating this month’s choices to first-time feature directors. First up, is director Damian Mc Carthy’s Caveat. It premiered at FrightFest in 2020 and is a compelling psychological mystery; it has just debuted on Shudder, making it the absolute perfect time to give it a watch.
Whilst recovering from an injury that has left blanks in his memory, Isaac (Jonathan French) takes an unusual job offer. Hired by Barret, someone from Isaac’s past, a life he can’t fully remember, the job requires Isaac to travel to an isolated island to take care of a disturbed young woman, Olga. Olga is Barret’s niece and has become despondent since the death of her father and disappearance of her mother. Certain that something is out to get her, Olga sees any that enter the property as a threat, and although agreeable to the idea of a carer, she has one caveat – they must chain themselves up. It’s a rather strange request, but in need of the money, Isaac reluctantly accepts. As his work starts, he begins to regain some memories… memories that seem to point to a dark and unsettling connection to the island.
Set against an autumnal colour palette, Caveat is a film that oozes atmosphere and mood. Ninety percent of the film’s sets were made from scratch, and the painstaking attention to detail is exceptional. Despite being man-made, they come across on screen as real locations, ones that have suffered years of neglect. Everything looks a little dark and dingy, browns and orange hues tainting everything to add an almost sepia quality to the piece. When combined all together, the house, which forms the heart of the story, looks exceptional. Adding to the ancient relic feel of the place, it has been dressed with several odd curiosities that capture the attention and imagination. Two of these, a very creepy looking painting and a nightmarish rabbit toy, have a part to play within the plot and are responsible for two of the best scare moments of the film.
Instead of relying on the conventional jump scares to frighten his audience, director Damian Mc Carthy chooses to let the story speak for itself. The plot contains enough mystery, half-truths, twists, revelations, and actual horror, to keep the viewer adequately satisfied. Operating under the ‘slow and steady’ mantra, Mc Carthy slowly drip-feeds the audience information. He takes his time and uses that time to hone the tension and suspense; much like Olga and Isaac on screen, he plays a game of cat and mouse with the viewer. Similarly, as we see the balance of power shift between our two performances, the audience feels as if they have the upper hand only to have it wrenched away by a sudden new detail from Mc Carthy that changes everything.
Their strangeness serves to unsettle and confuse and entice the viewer further in. The elements are filtered in almost immediately, the first being the contraption that Isaac is expected to wear. It’s essentially a harness attached to a chain, the length of which can travel anywhere in the house with the exception of Olga’s bedroom. It’s an obviously odd contraption and it’s inclusion sets Caveat up early on as not your typical genre film.
Rather than let the viewer in on everything, we are taken through the journey by Isaac and so we experience everything at the same time as him. Given the mysterious nature of the film, this is an essential story-telling mechanism. It means that we need to like and identify with Isaac, and thankfully Jonathan French gives a stellar performance. Playing a character suffering with memory loss is never an easy task, but French makes it look effortless. As the story progresses and Isaac gains glimpses of memories, new facets of his personality are opened up. By the end of French’s performance, we have a very different Isaac to the one we started with, and yet the change has happened so subtly, we’re hardly aware of it.
Caveat takes the viewer on a dark and delightfully enigmatic trip down the rabbit-hole in this effectively creepy and atmospheric tale. An accomplished debut, with Caveat Damian Mc Carthy proves that less is more, weaving an intricate and delicate brain teaser mystery, set within a haunting and atmospheric world.
This review was first published on THN. Caveat is now available on Shudder.