As the old adage goes, if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. This is the basis for the new Shudder Original Caveat, a low-budget Irish horror that shows promise thanks to the talent involved, but ultimately doesn’t come together as successfully as it could.
Irish writer-director Damien McCarthy’s unsettling slow-burning horror provides a premise with a few red flags. Lone drifter Isaac (Jonathan French) is offered a seemingly simple, though odd, gig by an acquaintance named Moe (Ben Caplan) – babysit his mentally disturbed niece in a remote island cottage where her father recently killed himself. Suffering from memory loss, Isaac is a drifter and paying gigs are hard to find, especially when you’ve been institutionalized. But he can trust his old pal Moe, right?
As audiences might guess, no, Moe is not to be trusted. Especially as the caveats to this easy-money deal start piling up; the cottage is on an island accessible by boat and Isaac can’t swim, niece Olga (Leila Sykes) might be deranged and is afraid of being attacked, there’s a demonic-looking rabbit doll whose mechanical drumbeats signal alarm, and, perhaps the biggest caveat of all, Isaac must wear a medieval-looking leather vest with a harness locked and chained to the floor.
“Every job has a uniform,” Moe explains to Isaac.
To paraphrase Scream, Isaac should be running out the front door instead of up the stairs in the face of these weird asks. Viewers aware this is already a task filled with ominous red flags is what makes McCarthy’s horror so disturbing.
Tethered in place, Caveat relies more on feeling than logic as it takes a leap to buy into the premise and get all of the players involved into place. Sometimes confusing ambiguity with tension, McCarthy’s horror doesn’t always add up, but what it may lack in a coherent thread plied with jarring flashbacks, it makes up for in atmosphere, dread, and a few minimal but well-placed jump scares.
In his first feature film role, French is a compelling actor on screen, as is Sykes, but the real star here is McCarthy. There is no doubt Caveat was filmed on a micro-budget but McCarthy never calls attention to it thanks to the film’s dilapidated setting with peeling wallpaper and floorboards so dank and musty-looking you can practically smell the mildew. The lack of budget works in favour here when it comes to filling the cottage with dread in every corner, and indeed, every wall. Cinematographer Kieran Fitzgerald makes it clear this house has seen things, even if they prove to be less exciting than what’s happening in the present day.
McCarthy has skills that belie the fact Caveat is his debut feature film, especially considering how it came to fruition. With a minuscule budget, the movie was filmed in 2017 and while McCarthy worked a normal 9-to-5 job, he paid for the post-production costs out of pocket in pieces over the years. If a first-time filmmaker can achieve this under those constraints, it is thrilling to think of the possibilities that would come with a bigger budget.
Having made the rounds at horror festivals including FrightFest, IMAGINE Film Fest, Screamfest Horror Film Festival, Caveat arrives on Shudder on June 3.