Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
While I’ve tried to take in as broad a scope of horror cinema as possible this month, there has been one inadvertent omission so far. None of the films have really been that scary. Don’t get me wrong — there have been some excellent films on the list, including a few that will stay with me for a long time. It’s just that even the best of them has been noteworthy for their imagination, wit or artistic flair rather than, say, their ability to keep me up until 4 AM, hoping that the noise I heard in the dark of the bedroom was just a restless cat.
Well, the trailer and reviews for Caveat suggest that this may finally be the film to scare me. Fingers crossed!
Caveat is currently streaming on Shudder in the UK.
Isaac, a rootless young man recovering from some kind of head trauma, is hired by his acquaintance, Moe, for a special job. Moe’s niece, Olga, is suffering from a psychotic illness and is living alone in their remote family home. Isaac simply needs to look after her for a few days, making sure she comes to no harm. This should be easy, as Olga’s condition leaves her catatonic much of the time.
What Moe hasn’t told Isaac is that the house is on a private island, only accessible by boat. Worse still, Isaac is expected to wear a leather harness and chain while at the house, limiting his access to certain rooms, including Olga’s. This is supposedly to avoid triggering Olga’s paranoia. Given that she has a crossbow and a willingness to use it, this may be for the best.
Almost as soon as Isaac takes up residence, weird things start happening. A creepy painting of a young girl and her toy rabbit develops a life of its own. The actual toy rabbit beats an alarm on its drum to alert Isaac to unseen presences. And then there’s all the business with the dead body in the cellar.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, Olga alternates between catatonia and lucid moments of outright hostility. She claims that Isaac has been to the house before and that he did terrible things here. Is this just a symptom of her psychosis or is Isaac’s memory not to be trusted? Why is the dead body in the cellar so restless? And what the hell is going on with that toy bunny anyway?
Caveat makes terrific use of very limited locations. Apart from a handful of scenes, almost all the action takes place within a rundown cottage. Between shutters and an outright lack of windows in many rooms, this is a place devoid of natural light, swathed in shadow at all hours. Its starkness, oppressive gloom and small scattering of weird objects conjure up an unsettling gothic atmosphere.
And this is a profoundly gothic film. From its dark family secrets to the house filled with secret passages, everything goes back to the roots of the genre. There is even a little nod to Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath, with a wide-eyed corpse who won’t sit still.
Isaac spends much of his time prowling through the house in the darkness, relying on a torch for illumination. I was particularly impressed at how ineffectual this torch was. Too many films have a character strike a match and light up most of a room. Here, the weak little pool of light Isaac relies upon makes us feel his vulnerability all the more keenly.
Considering this is a film in which two of the characters are psychologically damaged, albeit in very different ways, the presentation of their illnesses is never less than compassionate. Moe does make Olga’s catatonia the butt of jokes, putting a lampshade on her head during one episode, but he is such a thoroughly unpleasant character that this only makes her more sympathetic.
Caveat is a near miss. While it has excellent moments and offers a fair few frights, it never quite comes together satisfactorily.
The way Caveat‘s story is told is arguably its strongest aspect. This is a puzzle box of a film with an unreliable narrator and we are left to infer a lot of details. Unlike, say, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, however, the film does give us all the pieces we need and doesn’t make us work too hard for them. It simply uses a few tricks to keep us off-balance and guessing.
Ironically, some of Caveat‘s strongest images are also its undoing. The business with the spooky painting and the rabbit doll is intriguing but not fully developed enough to work. While it fits thematically, we have to come up with our own explanations. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but given how important piecing together the main narrative is here, it feels like the wrong approach.
These quibbles aside, Caveat is certainly the creepiest film of the month so far. Its sustained atmosphere of dread and moments of startling weirdness serve it well. It’s just frustrating that Caveat comes so close to excellence only to fall short.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Werewolves Within (USA, 2021)
- Crystal Eyes (Argentina, 2018)
- Super Dark Times (USA, 2017)
- Thirst (Australia, 1979)
- A Ghost Waits (USA, 2020)
- Cemetery of Terror (Mexico, 1985)
- I Came By (UK, 2022)
- 100 Monsters (Japan, 1968)
- Sea Fever (Ireland, 2020)
- Mill of the Stone Women (Italy, 1960)
- Glorious (USA, 2022)
- All the Moons (Spain, 2021)
- Broadcast Signal Intrusion (USA, 2021)
- Incantation (Taiwan, 2022)
- The Gore Gore Girls (USA, 1972)
- Luz: The Flower of Evil (Colombia, 2019)
- Butterfly Kisses (USA, 2018)
- The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italy, 1971)
- Saloum (Senegal, 2021)
- The Addiction (USA, 1995)
- Good Madam (South Africa, 2021)
- The Freakmaker (UK, 1974)
- The Long Walk (Laos, 2019)
- Eyes of Fire (USA, 1983)
- Errors of the Human Body (Germany, 2013)
- Caveat (Ireland, 2020)
- The White Reindeer (Finland, 1952)
- His House (UK, 2020)
- Tourist Trap (USA, 1979)
- Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden, 1922)
- Flux Gourmet (UK, 2022)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Night House
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!