“Caveat” is a little spooky Irish horror film mainly driven by mood and ideas instead of plot and characters. While it is rather thin in terms of narrative and characterization, the movie is competent and skillful enough to fill its short running time (88 minutes) with a subtle sense of anxiety and dread hovering around the screen, and you will appreciate it more if you know the importance of mood and tension in good horror movies.
After succinctly setting its moody tone during the ominous prologue scene which shows us an adolescent girl searching for something in her house via a little ugly toy of hers, the movie begins the story via the viewpoint of Issac (Jonathan French), a lad who has recently suffered partial amnesia for some unspecific reason. He talks with a guy named Barret (Ben Chaplan), and, though he understandably does not remember Barret at all, Barret says that he is an acquaintance of Isaac.
Barret turns out to have an offer Isaac cannot easily refuse. Barret has a problematic niece who has been living alone in some remote place due to her mental problem, and, because her parents died and Barret is usually busy, he needs someone to babysit his niece for several days at least. Although he is initially reluctant at first, Isaac eventually accepts the offer mainly because Barret promises him to pay a lot for this seemingly simple job.
Of course, Isaac belatedly comes to realize that the job can be more demanding than expected. That remote place in question turns out to be a small lake island completely isolated from the outside world, and the house in the island does not look that cheery to say the least with its shabby and tarnished interior. While already having lots of reservation on his job, Isaac decides to do whatever he is demanded to do by Barret, and he even agrees to wear an old special harness which will limit his movement inside the house.
In case of Barret’s niece Olga (Leila Sykes), who is already introduced to us during the opening scene, she does not seem to mind Isaac’s presence that much as occasionally going through a catatonic state due to her mental illness, but Isaac cannot help but become disturbed by her eerie presence as well as the gloomy mood of the house. As he slowly gets accustomed to his limited status in the house, several strange things happen around him, and the ambient score by Richard G. Mitchell constantly conveys us to Isaac’s growing agitation about the house and Olga.
Of course, what we get here is a typical gothic haunted house tale, and the movie does not disappoint us as slowly dialing up the level of creepiness beneath the surface instead of jolting us with cheap shocks. As our hero is more unnerved by whatever is going on around him, the movie serves us a series of disturbing moments as expected, and then there comes a very effective moment when he eventually comes across a dark secret hidden somewhere in the house.
This is surely quite a familiar genre exercise, but director/writer/editor Damian Mc Carthy, who made several short films before making a feature film debut here, and his crew members did a commendable job of packing the film with enough suspense and spookiness to hold our attention. The production design by Damian Draven looks modest and barebone on the surface, but it does contribute a lot to the overall atmosphere of the film with small details to be noticed, and cinematographer Kieran Fitzgerald effectively establishes barren stuffiness around the screen. Compared to the increasingly tiresome shock and awe tactics of “The Conjuring” (2013) and its redundant sequels, what is admirably achieved in “Caveat” is more impressive and economic in my humble opinion, and I especially enjoyed how that tiny toy is effectively utilized more than once for unnerving us more along the story.
The few main characters in the movie are more or less than broad archetype, but the performers playing them fill their respective roles with enough personality and presence. While quite palpable in his character’s accumulating confusion and anxiety, Jonathan French holds the center as well as required, and he is also complemented well by Leila Sykes, who is equally fine in her mostly silent acting. Although we are frequently not that sure about what exactly makes her character tick, Sykes’s good performance always unnerves us whenever her character appears on the screen, and she is particularly good when her character begins a sort of cat-and-mouse game upon Isaac later in the story. As another crucial part of the story, Ben Caplan looks suitably sleazy and untrustworthy from the start, so we are not so surprised by what his character is hiding from Isaac – or what will befall to his character in the end.
During last several weeks, I have somehow watched a lot of recent horror movies, and “Caveat” is one of the better works in the bunch. Although the small production budget is evident from many aspects including its tiny background, Mc Carthy and his crew members do not waste any bit of their production budget on the whole, and their overall result makes me have some expectation on what may come next from Mc Carthy. As far as I can see from the movie, he is a talented filmmaker who does know how to engage and then disturb us, and I hope that he will go further with more good works to interest me and other audiences out there.