A haunted woman trudges through the halls of a dilapidated house, her fist clutching the long ears of a toy rabbit with a human face. Her stare a mile long, she foists the dangling toy about determinedly into doorways, as if it is a detector of some sort. Before the basement door, the unsettling toy springs to life, beating a tiny drum, making a tinny cry with each stroke. Down creaking stairs she’ll go, down into the dark and dank, where somehow the sounds of wind and wild echo. The rabbit with a man’s face beats its drum, guiding her to a wall. What lies behind the wall? This is just one of the mysteries unearthed in the nail-bitingly tense Caveat.
After this chilling and confounding opening sequence, Caveat delivers its premise and an explanation for its title. Mild-mannered Isaac (Jonathan French) is offered what should be an easy job. His old landlord Barrett (Ben Caplan) needs someone to watch after his mentally ill niece Olga (Leila Sykes), who is puttering around her parents’ house in the wake of her father’s death and her mother’s disappearance. The details are thin, but the money is good. So, Isaac agrees. Once they arrive at the house, Barret springs a perturbing pair of surprises. One: it is on an island, only accessible by rowboat. Two: Isaac is to do his duty while bound in a vest laden with heavy chains, anchored to the floor. That way Olga can sleep safely knowing he physically cannot reach her bedroom. Besides, Barrett says with a shrug,”Every job has a uniform.” Bound or not, Isaac explores and learns there’s much more to this job, this house, and this family than meets the already odd appearance.
Constructed of rot and peeling wallpaper, the house is a spooky labyrinth so fetid you can practically smell its musk. Its walls of yellow and faded red hint at festering and dried blood. Its rooms are filled with clues, traps, and holes that might lead to horror or salvation. The low lighting echoes the encroaching threat on our humble protagonist, while the flicker of a flashlight starkly reveals vintage—but effective—scares. A slippery timeline slides back and forth to now and a mysterious then that grows from vague to cruelly in focus. The skeletons in closets are coming out to play, and all to the score of drones, whines, and sighs of strings. It’s as if the wood around the house are crying out in warning, compassion, and exhaustion.
The world of Caveat is so richly realized that one imagines its ensemble had no trouble sliding into the surreal style. Their performances are muted, but never wooden. Like a creepy dream, they are either frozen in horror or eerily calm. To walk into this house with Isaac is to walk into a nightmare. French proves our stalwart guide, while Sykes, Caplan, and their scarier co-stars play haunting attractions, popping up in memories, from dark corners, and darker truths.
Masterful pacing unfurls the film like breadcrumbs, entreating us to chase down its mysteries to whatever frightful terrain they might lead. It’s frankly astounding that a film this self-assured came from a first-time feature filmmaker. In his directorial debut, writer/helmer Damian Mc Carthy’s creates an intoxicatingly unnerving horror film, lush in detail, intrigue, and scares. Thoughtful cinematography trains us to look behind our hero, as he plunges deeper into the house, his chains rattling behind him. Suspense grows from the tension of knowing there’s something else here, and that it relishes Isaac’s bound predicament. Screams come from the gleeful revelation of what lurks behind that damned wall.
Brewing a dizzying atmosphere, Mc Carthy creates a timeless horror film. With patient pacing and practical effects preferred in the Vincent Price era, Caveat nods to a horror tradition steeped more in mood than flashy gore sequences. Yet, Mc Carthy charts a path all his own, by creating an enchantingly enigmatic portrait of lost souls. In the end, you’ll be not only rattled, but haunted, wanting to go back, again and again, to see what else might be found in this spooky house of horrors.
Caveat debuts on Shudder on June 3.
Header Image Source: Shudder