Shudder Streaming: Caveat (2021) - Reviewed


The components of Damian Mc Carthy’s Caveat seem like all the quintessential elements of a classic horror film: an old house in the middle of nowhere with a dark past, strange occurrences at night that aren’t easily explained, a creepy toy that mysteriously comes to life.  But does the summation of these parts make this thriller from the UK what you’d expect diving into it?  Probably not.   

Isaac (Jonathan French) has some problems.  Fresh out of the hospital after suffering partial memory loss, he’s light on cash and looking for a new gig.  He has a chat in a pub with his former landlord Barrett (Ben Caplan), who offers him a short-term “babysitting” job looking after his niece Olga (Leila Sykes) for a few days.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, as the title of this film would suggest, there are some caveats:  the old, abandoned house Olga lives in is on an isolated island that’s difficult to leave, Olga is mentally disturbed from some heinous family trauma that took place there, and last but certainly not least, Isaac needs to wear a harness chained to the basement floor restricting his movement to keep Olga at ease.  While most people would probably say “hell no” to this unsettling trifecta of caveats, Isaac begrudgingly accepts the gig because the pay is good.  Unfortunately for him, during his stint at the disturbing house, he earns every penny of it when what follows is a medley of murder attempts, antagonistic ghosts, and bad memories rushing back into his cranium.

Caveat is a film of restraint — both literally and figuratively.  It thrives when it doesn’t actually show what’s lurking in the darkness and allows the unspoken to speak louder than words.  This isn’t to say that what is shown and said isn’t powerful; it simply hits that psychological sweet spot when the audience is left wondering, basking in the classic fear of the unknown.  While there are certain times when the narrative feels messy for this very reason (mostly when dealing with more pedestrian elements of the film), the balance between the overt and implied is this film’s strongest asset overall.  It’s also a perfect way for a small film with a presumably low budget to make the biggest impact: no reason to spend millions on expensive effects when it’s more effective to not show them.

There’s much more to appreciate about Caveat than its restraint.  The film’s sense of atmosphere thanks to the haunting cinematography and production design is a horror-lover’s dream.  The sound design is so effective that the simple sound of a chain being tugged almost becomes a maddening nemesis in the film to be avoided when it’s heard.  Small but mighty, the three actors that carry Caveat also have great chemistry despite each being unsavory characters in their own way.  And the toy bunny?  It’s inspired.

Despite all of these strengths, Caveat’s pacing is problematic.  There’s a great deal of energy placed in the build-up of the action, but when the action is actually taking place, it feels anti-climactic.  Shocking revelations happen that seem mundane, and life-threatening moments have no tension.  The way the narrative unravels gives audiences a scarce sense of investment in the characters and little to no urgency about the plot despite clearly urgent events taking place.  The climax itself flatlines and ends up washing over the viewer rather than being a natural peak in the narrative, making the culmination of all of the film’s happenings somewhat unsatisfying.  It’s not necessarily boring; it’s simply not gripping enough in its execution.   

Don’t let this scare you away too much, however.  While Caveat is certainly not what it seems at first glance and it might have some flaws, if you enjoy subtle, ambient psychological thrillers with a supernatural slant, then check it out on Shudder starting June 3rd.

--Andrea Riley