By RYAN COLEMAN
Starring Ben Caplan, Conor Dwane, Jonathan French
Written and Directed by Damian McCarthy
What draws people to movies? Not to the art form itself, but what specific things about individual movies make people want to watch them? It could be an actor – I know more than a few Nicolas Cage completionists that have plumbed the depths of his long and crazy career for sheer love of the actor’s unique screen presence. It could be a genre – some people just love noir! And they’ll watch anything, classic or neo, whatever fits the bill. Other times, and this is a draw that works on everyone to a degree, it’s a film’s premise that ropes in an audience. I’d watch anything Nicole Kidman’s in, for example, but it was the premise of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, in which a woman’s ten-year-dead fiancé returns in the form of a ten-year-old boy and tries to win her back, that drew me to what is now not only my favorite Kidman, but possibly my favorite film. CAVEAT is one such film that may not pack a punch cast or crew-wise, its poster and title are less than inspiring, and it doesn’t appear from the outside to fall into any distinct horror subgenre, but it does have a knockout premise.
A guy named Isaac, (Jonathan French) agrees to babysit Olga (Leila Sykes), the niece of another guy (Ben Caplan, who give the film’s only spirited performance) for five days, but he finds out too late that there are – you guessed it – several caveats. The girl’s father recently committed suicide (in the house where he’ll watch her), her mother’s gone missing, the house itself looks like the final location from The Blair Witch Project, the girl is a schizophrenic chronic nose bleeder who crouches in her room with her hands in front of her face all day. But the biggest caveat? Isaac must padlock himself into a leather harness that’s chained to the basement so that he can’t reach Olga’s room (she doesn’t want to be disturbed).
The successfully baited viewer of Irish writer/director Damian McCarthy’s agonizingly underplayed debut feature will be surprised not by the buffet of gimmicks that lay in store (haunted painting, brain surgery as narrative bandaid, creepy wind-up toy that acts up around bad vibes), but by how very little there is of anything else. Immediately we’re introduced to the three principal components which weave together like wicker and form the foundations of the film. Because McCarthy is so committed to his own kind of minimalism, they often end up being reused as the material to build individual scenes as well as the content those scenes are filled with. They are, 1) A near-complete deprivation of visual and sonic stimulation. The film is dark, quiet, and shot 90% of the time inside a stripped-down structure built for the film in which every room looks like every other room. 2) A similar deprivation of narrative orientation. Rather, you watch most of the film without much context for what’s going on, until all the context is suddenly handed over in the third act via flashback. This narrative restraint may also be to blame for the low-energy lead performances from Sykes and French and the choice to migrate most of whatever action there is in the story off-screen or into the past. 3) A slight, but disproportionately grating tweeness that attempts to offset the sparseness of everything else. This consists mostly of inexplicable (and in most cases, unexplained) objects whose implausibility in what is otherwise a completely normal and grounded world is meant perhaps to heighten mystery, attract attention, and build up buy-in to keep watching. Because there is so little else pulling the audience forward, it becomes a difficult sell.
CAVEAT is as energetically barren as the condemned house in which it takes place. Like a soufflé taken out two minutes too soon, the film’s promising setup rapidly deflates into a dull miasma of miserable people shuffling miserably around a miserable location, ineffectively offset by an arsenal of symbolically charged objects that reach for horror but play as twee. Though unsettling moments crop up here and there, CAVEAT shakes free of the intrigue of its premise almost as soon as it’s explained – and that’s about minute seven. Until the genuinely thrilling torcher of the last 15 minutes, in which Isaac breaks free from his leather constraints and has to elude not only a mask-off Barrett and crossbow-wielding Olga, but *spoiler alert* the extremely well shot living corpse of Olga’s dead mother, CAVEAT drags, unbearably, from lifeless set-piece to lifeless set-piece, seeming more interested in defining itself by all the tropes it doesn’t fall into rather than doing anything of its own with gusto.
Watching CAVEAT is like watching McCarthy stretch out a white canvas, paint on his entire story in off-white, and add three to four accents in blood red. Surely it will make fans of fans of slow cinema, but after enjoying the excellent finale, I left feeling only punished by the arduous 75 minutes that preceded it. In fairness, the story that follows from the premise is interesting as well, involving manipulated memories, “here before” revelations, and several loose ends satisfyingly tied up. But CAVEAT asks you to accept so many implausibilities along the way, only to be rewarded with a watching experience akin to waiting for a teeth cleaning, that the terms ruin the deal. The caveats win out.
CAVEAT is available now, exclusively on Shudder.