Click here for the interview with writer/director/editor Damian McCarthy.
CAVEAT is a small masterpiece of mood and atmosphere. A southern gothic transplanted to a remote island somewhere off the coast of Ireland without losing anything in the cultural translation, it is all about suggestion and quick cuts showing what may or may not be externalization of a troubled mind. It’s a film where the most troubling words spoken are “Does anyone else know you’re here?” And not because the speaker. Olga (Leila Sykes) is woman with psychiatric problems and a penchant for carrying a crossbow, though that certainly adds to the sense of dread.
She is speaking to Isaac (Jonathan French), who has come to the island to keep an eye on her at the behest of her uncle, Moe (Ben Caplan). Isaac suffered an accident that left him with a sketchy memory, and a need for the quick money offered by Moe to take the job that he himself couldn’t handle. Not that Moe gave him all the details before setting out, leaving out such salient points as where the niece lives, which is a crumbling house on an otherwise uninhabited island accessible only by boat. Nor did the mention that Olga’s particular issues involve bouts of catatonia and such extreme paranoia that Isaac will need to wear a harness and chain that will prevent him from entering her bedroom. At first Isaac balks, but with no other financial options, he acquiesces. It’s only for five days, after all.
Writer/director/editor Damian McCarthy is spare and direct in his approach, but despite a small budget, he has crafted a carefully thought out piece of filmmaking that more money would not have made more effective. The evocative music is less unnerving that the pervasive silence of the island, a silence broken only by the clanking of Isaac’s chain, and the call of foxes, described suggestively by Moe as sounding like a teenage girl screaming. The colors are dull, at one point Isaac all but blends into the browns and greens of the interior, creating the sense that he is being slowly absorbed into it. The blackness of a power cut leads into shafts of light moving across the screen with spectral eeriness, and a foreboding about what they will reveal.
As with all good horror films, there is something unpleasant in the basement, a tidy twist, and a back story of twisted familial relationships worthy of Tennessee Williams. McCarthy has entirely eschewed the jump-and-scare tactic for a slow build of suspense that tickle the primal fears that we all carry around with us. French, which his haunted eyes and shaggy beard, registers fear when things begin to go weird with the shell-shocked affect resulting from his accident, wonderfully mirrored by Sykes’ deathly calm that becomes an extension of Olga’s catatonic fits. The most animated character, and all the more jarring because of it, is the diabolical mechanical rabbit with bulging eyes that leer as it seems to play a tattoo in response to vocal stimuli.
Squirm-inducing and enigmatic, CAVEAT has the oneiric quality of a half-remembered nightmare, the half that is the most disquieting, where events move relentlessly and inevitably into the macabre.