Isaac (Jonathan French) doesn’t remember Barret (Ben Caplan), but Barret assures him they are friends. He even visited him at the hospital only to discover Isaac had no recollection of ever having met him before. I guess you have two choices when suffering from partial memory loss: you either decide to trust nobody or accept the help of strangers who say they aren’t strangers at all. Isaac is the latte—albeit skeptical. Whether that skepticism is towards Barret himself or the job he’s offering, however, is yet to be revealed. Maybe his “friend” truly does want to help and a babysitting job paying two hundred quid a day definitely would. So why does Barret leave certain integral details about the gig out? What’s the catch?
Films like Caveat are interesting because they make you wonder what was going through the writer-director’s mind when conjuring their premise. Filmmaker Damian McCarthy doesn’t just give Isaac amnesia—he draws the character’s sole human connection as a man who cannot be trusted. First Barret lies about saying he told him the house he’d be staying in was on an island. (Isaac can’t swim.) Then Barret casually tells his “friend” upon their arrival—and thus well past the point of no return when it comes to saying he no longer wants the job—that his niece Olga (Leila Sykes) demands her caretakers be locked into a so-called “sleepwalking vest” that guarantees they cannot enter her room. Its chained leash even leaves the outside off limits.
It’s a scenario straight out of a Saw movie with Isaac voluntarily entering a contraption that removes autonomy. He’s now completely at the mercy of a teenage girl prone to catatonic fits that go on for hours and an unhealthy mistrust that places a crossbow in her hands during those moments when she’s lucid. Isaac tries to make the best of it by befriending the dog outside who probably hasn’t eaten in days and testing his boundaries with a trip to the cellar. Add a creepy variation on the Jolly Chimp toy (a rabbit with drums rather than monkey with cymbals) that seemingly comes to life to warn of unseen dark forces in the shadows, and one has to wonder how much of what we’re seeing is real.
Where that uncertainty creates a welcome dose of dread, however, it also introduces an unavoidable frustration. The reason is simple: we don’t know what the toy is warning Isaac about. Is there a supernatural entity present? Or are we supposed to read between the lines and discover the real evil lies in the people we’ve met? Caveat wants us to give into the possibility of the former so hard that it forgets it needs to actually give us something to believe beyond parlor tricks that could very easily be the work of a person off-screen. McCarthy needed at least one scene where something unexplainable happens while Isaac and Olga are together so that we can fear an unknown. Without it we assume everything makes sense.
I’ll admit I checked out a few times; effective dread only goes so far when its source is known. Even if McCarthy proves he’s tricked us into knowing the “wrong” thing, such a revelation only augments what follows. Our experience beforehand remains marred by our certainty and the boredom that so easily enters on its back. I can’t therefore ignore the laboriousness of the journey even as I appreciate the success of the climax. Hindsight allows me to understand why McCarthy makes the choices he does so that I can leave the theater with a smile, but it doesn’t erase my memory. My ignorance wasn’t psychological like with Isaac. He fights for clarity while we’re intentionally shielded from it.
The intrigue isn’t therefore about whether something spooky is happening in the background. It instead lies in the secrets that Isaac is gradually unlocking with each new instance of déjà vu. The holes in Barret’s story begin to widen and truths are made clear in such a way that forces Isaac (and us) to forget there was even a question of ghosts and demons. Suddenly this task to keep Olga safe from herself becomes a challenge to keep himself safe from her. There comes a section of runtime where the film becomes a cat-and-mouse chase between them as lies and assumptions fuel their ideas of being in danger. Is it all a game? Has Barret tricked them into killing each other? Or is it a nightmare?
I really liked the production design where this is concerned because nothing about their environment is pretending to be anything but horror chic. It’s as though this house has been intentionally forgotten so that it could devolve into a state of disrepair straight out of The Blair Witch Project, save that fresh sheet of drywall nailed up in the basement. There are holes in the walls, crawlspaces, shoddy fuses, and the leather vest locked with an iron spike. There are books of black paper with white circles, a single phone located just out of reach, and the knowledge that a bolt could fly through the air from that crossbow at any second. The visuals ooze creepiness, even if the payoff doesn’t arrive until the very end.
French supplies a captivating performance where his body and mind are locked away unless he finds the keys. Sykes is good, but her Olga is more a part of the house rather than a complex character to worry about in her own right. And Caplan looms as an external antagonistic force we’re sure will return despite not knowing when. What this family did and is currently doing is thus less important on its own merits than where the overlap with Isaac lies. There’s a reason he’s here and his only chance to escape resides in remembering what that is. Maybe then he’ll find the rabbit’s warnings are actually offerings of assistance. I just wish such possibilities happened earlier to show we’re building towards something rather than simply waiting.
Caveat streams exclusively on Shudder starting June 3.