An effective, minimalist horror story – inhabiting a space between psychological drama and ghost story – writer-director Damian Mc Carthy’s Irish-made debut feature Caveat is one of the strongest genre offerings of the year.
Isaac (Jonathan French), a bearded semi-amnesiac, is offered a surprisingly well-paid temporary job by vaguely gangsterish Moe Barrett (Ben Caplan) – his troubled niece Olga (Leila Sykes) can’t stay away from the isolated house where her father killed himself and Moe wants someone to be around the place to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself. And the pay is €200 a day for a probable five-day gig. However, as the title suggests, there are caveats, which Moe only lets Isaac in on after it’s too late to back out … the run-down house is on an island in a lake, Olga’s mother has gone missing after perhaps practicing witchcraft, and – worst of all – Olga has such a phobia of people coming into her room late at night that she insists her carer wear a leather restraint jacket on a long chain which was designed for people who sleepwalk but, among other things, means Isaac can’t get into the bathroom to use the toilet. Moe sweet-talks Isaac into the get-up and gives the key to Olga, then high-tails it out of the place – whereupon Isaac realises what a bind he’s in, and also struggles to remember missing chunks of his memory which might fit into the mysteries of the house.
An unusual aspect of the film is that it mostly coops up two people in a house – like the comparable A Dark Song – but doesn’t hinge on their developing relationship; indeed, Isaac and Olga both go deeper into their own heads, stumbling around, avoiding each other, and haunted by memories and perhaps actual ghosts. The film is full of fresh, unusual spook situations – recurrent appearances by the dead-looking mother are Bava-ish, after the manner of the grinning corpse in Black Sabbath, are staged for maximum discomfort, as she pops up in close proximity to folks hiding in small dark places … and there are weird threads about a ghastly-looking toy bunny and circular holes sawed in walls to allow people to peep through to see things they’d rather not or reach through to get vital objects (a key, a phone) that are withheld from them.
The antique anti-somnambulism jacket, a horridly convincing item, is used impressively throughout – horror films recently have been full of images of restraint, to the extent that being chained up has become a tiresome torture porn cliché, but this variant is strong and original. Caplan gives the showiest performance, matey and sinister at the same time, but French and Sykes are subtly compelling as the trapped, frayed psyches. The dilapidated old house – apparently, Bantry House in County Cork, location-spotter fans – is wonderfully used: it’s an amazingly uncomfortable-seeming, grubby, cold, inhospitable home. It knows the ghost story game well enough to privilege creeping dread over tying up all the plot ends – and boasts several of the most frightening moments of this year’s FrightFest line-up.