It’s hard to keep anything buried for too long in the horror genre, whether sordid family secrets or a script that doesn’t quite add up. But though the inevitable comeuppance looms large over the proceedings, and tangled webs of lies and plot points usually unravel, the process of reaching that final destination is where the eerie entertainment happens. Though it leaves much of human logic behind for the trip, Damian Mc Carthy’s feature debut, Caveat, largely succeeds in creating a spooky atmosphere in telling the story of a troubled man who accepts a strange job at a rundown cabin on an isolated rural island. Skillfully assembled sequences cover over the flaws with frights, which should satisfy audiences in the mood for casual chills.
After an ominous opening involving a woman searching a dingy basement with a supernatural, drum-playing stuffed rabbit, Caveat slows its mystery down a bit in presenting its premise. Isaac, a man whose bushy beard and cheap clothes suggest someone down on his luck, is shrewdly contracted by the cheap-suited Barret to spend a few days at his dead brother’s cabin while his fragile-minded niece, Olga, grieves. Despite extremely vague details and his own recent release from the hospital after a memory loss-inducing accident, Isaac accepts the offer. Upon reaching their desolate destination, however, he learns a few more conditions that raise some flags: first, Olga’s father committed suicide in the basement, and her mother has gone missing. Second, the cabin is located on an island in the middle of nowhere, and Isaac can’t swim. And third, he will be required to wear a medieval-looking harness attached to a long chain for the duration of his stay, which essentially leashes him to certain parts of the cabin, keeping Olga’s room — and the only working phone — out of reach.
Now, it’s easy to see the potential benefits of such a setup, the archaic restraint serving as a claustrophobic instrument that ups the tension (with visuals supported by dreadful clunks as the chain is dragged across wooden floors), as well as a clever plot device that explains why Isaac doesn’t just get the hell out of there as soon as things turn the wrong kind of weird. Nearly all of the film’s best sequences exploit the harness, and they can be truly hand-wringing. But while a thin story might be able to get away with glossing over the logistics of wearing this padlocked yoke for several days (how does one change clothes or bathe?), it’s quite another thing to gloss over Isaac’s initial — and quite human — objections to what amounts to temporary imprisonment. Yet, gloss over this rare plausible moment is precisely what Caveat does, and it never looks back, piling inexplicable decision upon inexplicable decision, as if the characters aren’t quite sure how the real world works (why spend 5 minutes nervously sawing through drywall when a simple punch or kick would do the trick?). The horror genre is no stranger to illogical choices, but if setups get too contrived, it can lessen the impact of otherwise entertaining suspense.
From the very beginning, Caveat establishes a thick, dank atmosphere rich with decrepit detail and creepy kitsch, a coat of moldy paint that goes a long way toward creating an appealingly unappealing façade. The cabin feels old, abandoned by civilization and time, powerless in its isolated predicament yet still resisting being overgrown by the forest. Isaac isn’t much better off; he comes off as pragmatic and quite likeable, but his eyes dart about for anything to recognize, anything he can trust in. Naturally, that amounts to very little (outside a good doggy), and that edginess is nicely contagious. Plenty of static camera shots allow the audience to absorb this ambiance, with dreary grays and somber ochers giving off vibes of decay. Later sequences do get a little stifling with the reliance on flashlights in the dark, but there’s no doubt that coming back into the light after those prolonged moments elicits a palpable feeling of escape.
Patience is a virtue when attempting to wrack nerves, and director Damian Mc Carthy displays an almost Shyamalan-esque glee in withholding scares until just the right moment. From a sequence with a sinister painting to the rhythmic responses of that drum-playing rabbit, Caveat rarely rushes through the process, at times seeming to see just how many edits it can get away with in these unsettling standoffs. Most refreshing might be the near-absence of traditional jump scares; there are multiple times when Mc Carthy’s payoffs are revealed without the accompaniment of those blaring musical stings, and the near-silence coupled with the disturbing imagery can be truly unnerving. Unfortunately, the score does often rear its ugly during the down times in ways that often do seem intrusive, telegraphing the descent in to doom with dire overtones when a subtler touch could have produced better, more nail-biting results. But when it comes to the filmmaking overall, Caveat gets it right when it matters most, saving its best for last.
That ending isn’t unexpected, but it is effective, thanks to some skillful handling of what easily could have been a campy finale. Instead of getting locked in the basement with its lifeless logic, Caveat overcomes an iffy script with excellent assembly and ultimately manages to engage and entertain. Damian Mc Carthy’s debut feature will no doubt have horror fans keeping a decomposed, leering eye on what he does next.
‘Caveat’ will be available to stream exclusively on Shudder starting June 3, 2021