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‘Caveat’ Review: Needlessly dense narrative drains the dread from an otherwise horrific frightfest

If you're looking for minimal, unpredictable counterprogramming to the blockbuster scale of "The Conjuring 3," "Caveat" will do spooky wonders.
Credit: Shudder

SAN ANTONIO — The tongue-in-cheek title of filmmaker Damian Mc Carthy’s feature debut is “Caveat,” and it tells us everything we need to know about this sparse but sinister movie while providing some misdirection.

Yes, the caveats are aplenty for Isaac (Jonathan French), a lonely soul enlisted by an acquaintance and maybe-friend, Barret (Ben Caplan), to look after his mentally disturbed niece while she refuses to leave the home (more of a glorified outhouse, really) where her father was killed. Oh, and said abode is on an island. Oh, and even ground-level rooms are lit like that basement you never went into when you were 5. Oh, and Isaac must agree to be locked into a leather vest, effectively chaining him to the shack.

The caveats are aplenty, yes, but the ironies which fuel the movie’s first few minutes run out just as we’re realizing Isaac won’t be able to “Run, you idiot!” as the spooks ramp up in spookiness. Make no mistake: This is also (or at least trying to be) a deeply serious tale about undue reckonings, though that keeps the film from becoming as memorable as it could’ve been.

If there’s one more major, ahem, caveat folks should be notified of before venturing into this void, it’s that anything goes and not much will be explained. “Caveat” takes its supernatural flourishes for granted, and expects us to do the same; it’s the only explanation for why Isaac reacts to a tattered rabbit doll’s literal drum-beating as if creepy toys come to life is something he grew up playing with. Is it possessed? Sentient? All in Isaac’s head? Who cares—the screenplay may back itself into corners trying to conjure sincere human drama out of its core mysteries, but that hardly matters when Mc Carthy creates such an inviting (read: horrifying) Russian Doll of dread in a disorienting haunted house where it seems we might traipse into an entirely new realm of terror while rounding the next corner.

The best thing about “Caveat” (which is now available on the horror-centric streaming platform Shudder) is how it manufactures tension from restraint, keeping the steady pulse of its scares beating to the disorderly internal logic that would lead Isaac to agree to such outrageous stipulations for this temporary gig (all for $200 a day; if Mc Carthy wanted to, a couple tweaks in the screenplay might have turned “Caveat” into a cinematic argument for a higher minimum wage).

As it is, the first half of “Caveat” is deliciously simple in its straightforward but carefully thought-out design. A ghoulish caricature of a frowning woman insists on keeping eerie watch on Isaac as he sleeps; the aforementioned rabbit toy from hell guides him to rotten discoveries hidden within walls; and the omnipresence of Isaac’s chain leash is so naturally realized (thanks in no small part to some throat-tightening sound design) that we feel a pang of horror when we watch iron slack slowly being tugged on behind our prisoner. Indeed, the first 40 minutes or so of the sub-90-minute “Caveat” prove to be effective counterprogramming to the biggest horror release of the weekend, the new “Conjuring” blockbuster in which denser narratives and stricter genre boundaries will inevitably mean viewers of that film are more prepared and perhaps ultimately less satisfied.

The narrative thicket grows thornier in “Caveat” as well, its plot taking some needlessly complicated, timeline-juggling turns. That impulses tarnishes the purer goosebumps-inducing moments from earlier. Backstories are expanded upon, slightly, though character motivations remain obtuse if not nonexistent, and “Caveat” loses a sizeable chunk of its dread-inducing charm as its embrace of various horror tropes is loosened by an increasingly busy story—the kind that makes us expect answers where the lack thereof is instead the more intriguing choice. Mc Carthy’s first full-length feature struggles to make the imbalance meaningful.

My advice: Don’t fret too much about keeping story particulars straight. As Isaac’s reclusive roommate, Olga (Leila Sykes, giving a muted but ominous performance), makes us suspicious about what little we’ve been told up to this point, it also strongly establishes the tensions of a darkness-shrouded final third in which this maze of a home becomes a battlefield where the lines between trapped and trapper are increasingly blurred. And even while “Caveat” strains for the weight of a sorta-revenge tale I never much felt hooked by, there’s still a blood-curdling set piece in the homestretch that renews terrifying emphasis on how it’s sometimes better not to peek over your shoulder when we feel something – or someone – keeping close eye on us. When “Caveat” is in peak form, you’ll give anything for Isaac not to, despite our being chained to his limited perspective and inability to escape.

"Caveat" is not rated (a little blood, a lot of dread). It's available to stream on Shudder now. 

Starring: Jonathan French, Ben Caplan, Leila Sykes

Directed by Damian Mc Carthy

2021

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