Caveat is the feature debut of Irish writer and director Damian McCarthy and stars Ben Caplan (Call the Midwife), Jonathan French (A Soldier’s Voice), and Leila Sykes (Missing Something). In Caveat, a solitary drifter accepts a job to look after his landlord’s niece for a few days in an isolated country house on a remote island. The simple gig takes a disturbing turn when he learns that he must wear a leather harness and chain that restricts his movements and keeps corners of the home out of his reach. Alone and with no escape, the young girl becomes erratic, mysteries of the house are revealed, and a horrific game is afoot.
On paper, Caveat has all the elements of a great horror piece. A remote house, a murder plot, a possible haunting, and a Saw-esque element of helplessnes – all of the ingredients are there. Unfortunately, despite having all the right stuff, Caveat fails to come together. In fact, the film often stumbles over its better features, making for a messy experience.
It’s essential to understand the difference between a slow burn and a dragging plot, when it comes to horror, and that lesson is sorely needed in Caveat. The viewer is brought into the story knowing absolutely nothing about these characters and every reveal is painfully slow. A shadowy mystery is a powerful tool in horror, but can be deeply unsatisfying if there is no real payoff. The amount of time spent waiting… and waiting… and waiting for things to move along only adds insult to injury. The film trots along at a respectable hour and a half runtime and yet it still feels like it lasts one hundred years. What little action there is is painfully spaced out and the viewer is given precious little purpose or context to mull over.
The best parts of Caveat are tied into the elements of discovery. Discovering new corners of the house, discovering frightening truths, and unearthing secrets that shake everything up. Every time we learn something new in Caveat, the next piece of information completely discredits that discovery. This surprise and intrigue goes from exciting to exhausting, once it becomes clear to the viewer that that’s all this film has to offer.
All the madness, mystery, and macabre in the world are useless if not given purpose or meaning. Down to the very last second, Caveat is constantly changing the rules and flipping the script. It’s an excellent exercise in atmosphere and tension, which makes it all the more disappointing when it ends abruptly and unceremoniously.
It’s the promise and potential of Caveat that makes it such a letdown. McCarthy has a finger on the pulse of good tension building and horror atmospheres, but ultimately suffers from an unrefined script. There’s a lot here that can be great, if the film could only get out of its own way.
Movie Score: 2.5/5
Caveat is now available on Shudder