Shudder’s latest original Caveat is a masterclass of slow-burning lean scares that wring tension from every unsettling shot.
Caveat from newcomer Damien Mc Carthy is a shining example of art over cash. First-time director Mc Carthy has a knack for slowly stripping away your defenses until you are left with nothing but dread and confusion to guide you. Anxiety is the three-course meal Caveat serves gleefully. Molecular Gastronomy at its strangest. Each dish is more bizarre and terrifyingly familiar until the final unnerving bite is both satisfying and utterly empty.
A loner amnesiac takes a job caring for mentally unstable young women in the middle of nowhere. It’s a fairly standard premise that gets a creative retread with a set design that is as repulsive as it is compelling and great performances from it its leads. Shortly after accepting this odd job, Isaac(a brilliant Jonathan French) finds the easy job comes with several caveats.
Namely, the home he is to work at is in the middle of nowhere, on an isolated lake, and his employer would like him to be confined into a menacing contraption that is part straight jacket and medieval torture device. For narrative reasons best left ignored, he has to wear this leather vest, chained to the basement because Olga is terrified of men. We learn she had good reason to be scared later. The destitute man accepts the job surprisingly, and despite this absurd plot point, the rest of the film breezes by in a haze of nightmarish mold, dried blood, and just-out-of-reach answers.
His charge Olga, who Leila Sykes plays with menacing placidness, vacillates between periods of complete catatonia highlighted by lifeless hands covering her eyes freakiness that screams of the nightmarish visions of the underappreciated Jennifer Lopez and Vincent Denofrio fronted The Cell and stalking Isaac with a crossbow. The palpable dread and claustrophobia are oppressive and deeply unsettling. You are herded from one tenuous moment to the next with your hands firmly clenched and a lump in your throat.
By the time the final act plays out, Isaac’s real reason for being at the house and the tragedy that keeps happening is vaguely revealed. Through shaky flashback, that is more confusing than illuminating. Isaac was chosen for a reason to come to this God-forsaken place. Memory loss or not, he had a role to play, and everyone knows it. The film begins with both main characters looking through a hole. Perhaps there lie all the answers. Here is everything you need to know about that dream-like ending.
The ending of Caveat.
The end of Caveat is fraught with ambiguities. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Mc Carthy deftly shines the light in another direction and changes your perspective. Maybe it isn’t as simple as a cat and mouse game played to tie up loose ends. This terrible place holds family secrets too shocking to uncover and more than a bit of blood was spilled there. At least two ghosts live in the house. The first is Olga’s mother, who her father and uncle left to rot behind the walls after shooting her.
The second is Olga’s father, who may or may not has been left by Isaac or her mother. Olga’s skewed view of things leaves a lot to the imagination. There is a lot she keeps hidden. That leaves her version of the truth more than a little lacking. Isaac’s is no better as a mysterious accident alluded to being caused by Olga’s uncle Barret. His fever dreamed memories serve to fill in as many details as they muddle.
It seems roughly a year ago, just before the accident that left him memory-impaired, he was hired by Barrett to come to Olga’s house and lock her father in the basement, forcing him to lose his mind and kill himself. Why he was hired to do this is slightly murky. Based on the clothing and beard lengths, we do know that this was a past event that he agreed to, at least initially. He did not go through with it though. It becomes pretty clear towards the end that Isaac was chosen because he had unfinished business even if, and probably because he can’t remember it. Barrett needs all witnesses dead or at least permanently confined.
There is a cruelty to Barrett that speaks volumes about what he and his brother probably did to Olga and her mother. He is a predator that hunts for sport rather than necessity. It is why he places the lampshade on Olga at the beginning of the film. There is an ominous quality to his early discussion with Isaac about fox howls and teenage girl screams that puts everything in question. Maybe Olga was abused by her uncle and father, and it drove both her and her mother mad? In any case, he doesn’t care about his niece, only about the world finding out what he had done.
What is the bunny?
The uber-creepy toy Olga and Isaac cling to through various parts of the film is equal parts maniacal Energizer Bunny and demonic Peter Cotten Tail. Its entirely too human eyes are judging unflinchingly. The tiny drum, its decrepit hands, hold bangs at odd times, either cautioning everyone to the presence of something dark and unpleasant or awakening it(we never really know). In all likelihood, the bunny does both. Olga holds the toy in front of her like a shield against the growing decay surrounding her.
It also makes appearances without Olga and seems to be animated by nothing but the spirit realm like some kind of schlocky seance trick only infinitely scarier. The truth is never revealed, but for both Olga and Isaac, who prove to be both in danger and dangerous at different times, it is a signpost leading them to truths best hidden in the dark. In the end, the rabbit seems more friend than foe to Isaac. It is a harbinger or a summoner of evil spirits that likely sits with how you view the movie. Olga is as much a victim as she is a product of the terrible things that happened in the house. For her, and arguably for Isaac, the bunny acts as a warning system alerting them to stay away or be diligent.
Are there ghosts in the house?
The caveat to the perfunctory haunted house trope is the living are just as scary as the dead. The ties that bind this family and everyone they interact with are rusty chains soiled with the blood of their victims. Olga’s mother and father may have been mentally unstable, but Barrett is a monster. At this point, Olga’s mother and father remain in the house, waiting for a chance to get even with Barrett.
The picture that initially clues Isaac into the many macabre findings in the house shifts when he and the camera aren’t focused on it and moves positions without provocation. Does Isaac see things, or is there something supernatural at play here? The answer is a reluctant both. Isaac is troubled and scared(who wouldn’t be), but there are very real ghosts lurking in the walls.
Like a wound left to fester, everything in Caveat feels fetid and rotting. Coloring is equally nauseating, with a color pallet best described as flu-like. Everything is the color of a picked scab, and the production design is layered with bits of filth and neglect. Mc Carthy’s film should be proof enough that the efficient filmmaker can stir up scares with very little money. Given a larger budget, I’m excited about what he could do. The intense story, quality performances, and banger soundtrack combine to make a genuinely terrifying experience. Caveat premiers on Shudder today.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.