In the first few minutes of writer/director, Damian Mc Carthy’s debut feature Caveat Barret (Ben Caplan, Call the Midwife, RocknRolla) offers Isaac (Jonathan French, Bravado) 200 GBP, about $290, a day to watch over his niece Olga (Leila Sykes, Lancaster Skies). “There’s got to be more to it than that” is his reply. And indeed there is, lots more, and none of it good.
Caveat is a tense and claustrophobic film built mostly around two characters and one location. And what a location it is, a dank and decaying house on a remote island. It looks ominous, and as the film’s first seconds strongly hint, there’s a good reason for that.
Before we can unravel the house’s mysteries however we have to get through some rather implausible bits of plotting. Isaac is just out of the hospital, we don’t know what happened but we do know that it wiped a large part of his memory clean. So when his landlord Barret claims to be a friend and offers him a chance to make some badly needed money he’s interested.
He doesn’t find out until they get there that the house is on an island. And, to soothe Olga’s paranoia and other alleged mental issues, he needs to be locked into a Victorian sleep walker’s harness which not only stops him from reaching her room it prevents him from reaching the phone or leaving the house. Anyone would have bailed out at that point, even without knowing Olga’s father killed himself in the basement and her mother seems to have vanished off the face of the Earth.
Mc Carthy plays the situation out for suspense and a feeling of impending doom rather than quick jump scares. Caveat isn’t entirely without them, but they’re carefully rationed out rather than being the film’s driving force. There are a lot more long, static shots than fast cuts. The house’s gloom and the details of what just occurred are allowed to seep into the viewer’s mind rather than jump out at them.
Instead, he uses the house’s atmosphere, Issac’s lack of memories, and Olga’s alleged memories of Isaac to slowly tease out details and leave the viewer confused, both anticipating and dreading the truth. A truth that may be slowly escaping from Isaac’s mind. There’s also the rotted toy rabbit we see in the poster, a creepy mix of the monkey from Stephen King’s story of the same name and the puppet from Possum. It drums on its own, but why? A quirk of what’s left of its mechanical innards, or a supernatural message of some sort?
Having the power go out at the start of the last act feels a little cliched, but it does help with the film’s payoff. It also lets the film make nice use of an earlier offhand remark about the sound of a fox screaming. Appropriately enough the ending is more quietly chilling than frantic and disquieting rather than definitive. There’s just enough doubt left after the final fade to keep you thinking about it after it’s over.
If you can deal with its slow-burn pacing and plot contrivances, Caveat has a lot to offer. Along with The Boys from County Hell, it’s the second excellent Irish genre film Shudder has added in the past few weeks. It’s also a promising debut film from Damian Mc Carthy. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more films of this quality both from Mc Carthy and his fellow Irishmen in the near future.
Caveat will stream exclusively via Shudder on June 3 in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as via the Shudder offering within the AMC+ bundle where available.