REVIEW: Caveat (2020)

dir. Damian Mc Carthy.

In a dank and rotting room Olga (Leila Sykes) steps cautiously into the light, blood trickling from her nose. In one outstretched hand she grasps a child’s toy – a drumming rabbit with upturned eyes – which she points ahead like a flashlight, as if it might illuminate something before her. It’s an arresting opening, destined for iconic status, to what soon proves to be one of the best horror films in years.

Things soon escalate when drifter Isaac (Jonathan French) agrees to accept a job from business man Barret (Ben Caplan) to care for Olga, who is revealed to be Barret’s niece: she has schizophrenia, and keeps returning to her isolated family home. Isaac accepts but has no idea what he’s getting himself into: sure the money’s good, but upon arrival he realises that he doesn’t know exactly where they are, having fallen asleep on the drive. The second red flag is that the home is in fact on a small island in the middle of a lake, and Isaac is a non-swimmer. And when the two men finally make it into the house there is one final “caveat” to their unusual contract: Isaac must be strapped into a sleepwalker jacket which restricts his movements to certain rooms, a lengthy chain tethering him to the basement where Olga’s father killed himself.

Director Mc Carthy marshal’s a sense of ratchetting dread with surgical precision, the water slowly boiling around Isaac, rising to his neck. To disclose more would be to court spoilers and ruin the incrementally increasing terror, but suffice to say that what begins as an intriguing if generic chamber piece gradually transforms into one of the most genuinely terrifying ghost stories in recent memory: for whilst not much is new here – with familiar tropes (creepy toys; spooky house) – every beat has been reworked to thrilling effect, a choking, cloying claustrophobia mounting by the minute that sticks in the back of your throat and grips the heart with tight, skeletal fingers.

The effectiveness of this suffocating tension is equal parts credit to the performances and Mc Carthy’s understated direction, all demonstrating considerable restraint: the actors indicate rich internal lives for their characters through tiny details – Isaac’s haunted eyes and unkempt beard; Olga’s unnerving catatonic states where she sits with her hands plastered over her eyes – and so too scenes are almost entirely devoid of jump scares, instead opting for an awful pared-down-minimalism which pays dividends as one is forced to endure proceedings with the grim inevitability of a door creaking open, slowly revealing some unnamed, fated horror behind.

Aesthetically all is decay, making this a mouldy bed fellow to Matthew Holness’ Possum, another grimy Anglo-Irish horror. The finale also showcases Mc Carthy’s familiarity with other genre mainstays, so that by the closing moments one feels that you’ve known all along where this heading: an impression that only compounds and amplifies the sense of doom, confirming one’s own worst fears.

Exhilarating, terrifying and unbearable (in the best way) Caveat is an incredible calling-card for all involved, a future favourite for horror hounds which will burrow deep into your soul at night, refusing to let the sleep come easy.

Tim Coleman

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