By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Irish filmmaker Damian Mc Carthy has spent the last decade honing his craft with a series of terrifying short films. Featuring ordinary people thrust into bizarre situations, Mc Carthy’s shorts How Olin Lost His Eye, He Dies at the End, Never Ever Open It, Hungry Hickory, and Hatch are slices of twisted surrealism predicated on visceral, shock endings. Utilizing his own obsessions and phobias, Mc Carthy exploits the limitations of short-form film to strip horror to its essence creating a unique style that is somehow both minimalistic and rife with meaning. At times evocative of the early work of David Lynch, as well as the internet phenomenon of creepypasta, Mc Carthy’s short films are the cinematic equivalent of the classic campfire horror tale – simple, stripped of artifice, and uncompromisingly brutal.
In CAVEAT, his first feature-length film, Mc Carthy merges his patented approach to horror with his most complex narrative to date. Starring Jonathan French as Isaac, a drifter tasked with watching over a disturbed young woman in a crumbling house located on a remote island, CAVEAT casts the themes and visual cues of Mc Carthy’s earlier work in a sinister new light with a plot that offers no easy answers. A rare horror film that demands the total emotional and intellectual engagement of its audience, CAVEAT is a mature and disturbing debut for Mc Carthy. The filmmaker took some time to speak with Rue Morgue about CAVEAT, his influences, and the challenges of moving from shorts to features.
How did you develop CAVEAT’s story?
I had made a number of short films over the last few years. They’re all silent, dialogue-free, mainly just built around one guy in some kind of an odd situation; like I made a short film about a guy who was laying an egg and, over the course of the movie, you’re waiting for the egg to hatch. There’s a film called He Dies at the End which is just about a man who never gets out of his chair but he’s terrorized by these questions he’s been asked by his computer. So I knew that I wanted to make the move to feature films, but I wanted to keep the same kind of horror that’s really built on suspense rather than gore or violence. I had developed a script over about a year and a half, and it was much longer. It was much more ambitious. I guess we spent about a year trying to get financing for it. And even though I had had a lot of success with the short films, it was still difficult to raise the financing and make that move into features. I had put all these things into the script that I just really wanted to see. I said that if I ever only got to make one film, at least it would have these things that I wanted to see in it like the guy in the harness, the haunted drumming bunny, and these kinds of things. Once we failed to raise the money for that, it came to, “What do we have around us that we can use?” That’s really stripping the script down to the bare bones of what CAVEAT ultimately became.
There are many recurring themes and motifs such as the use of hands, holes, and eyes in your short films and in CAVEAT. Do you use your own phobias as material for your films?
It’s really just a basic, primal fear…reaching into the dark or things you can’t see. I guess there’s a little bit of comedy with that, I would find, because there’s a fine line between comedy and horror. You can’t see what’s inside there, so don’t get too close to the dark. Don’t reach your hand inside there. For me, I always find that kind of bad decision making in horror films just really entertaining. And clearly in CAVEAT, [Isaac] just makes one completely illogical, bad decision after another.
As a horror film, CAVEAT is not easy to categorize. How do you define it?
For me, I would call it a haunted house movie. In what I’m reading about it online, I’ve seen it called a home invasion movie – I don’t really agree with that one! I think [it’s] a haunted house film.
Tell us about your cast and what they bring to your vision for the film.
My cast are Jonathan French, Leila Sykes, and Ben Caplan. Ben has had the most experience. He was in Band of Brothers. He’s been in lots of movies and plays. Leila and Jonathan are pretty much like myself in that they’re just starting out in the business. In working with them, I guess because it was a horror film, it would just come back to that nervous laughter. Ben’s behavior in the film is just very odd and over-the-top but in that good way. He’s kind of just away in his own world, whereas, I think, Jonathan’s challenge was he had to play it very, very straight, never really knowing that he’s in a horror film. Like, if you look at a performance like Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II, it’s incredible because he’s really on board with these crazy things that are happening. But I just thought it would maybe work better with Jonathan if he just played it very, very straight when these clearly supernatural, impossible things are happening around him. And it worked. He did an incredible job. All the cast did. I couldn’t have been happier with them.
What challenges did you face transitioning from shorts to a feature-length film?
As I said, we spent a long time trying to get financing for this film and it just wasn’t happening. Over the years, making short films, I’ve come close to getting that little bit of financing to make a low-budget feature, but it would just never happen which was always very disappointing. It kind of seemed to be that suddenly we had this little bit of budget that was available. I guess it was a case of, “Okay, we need to do it now before we lose our financing.” I found that I had all my horror set-pieces very much in place within the story that I wrapped around them. I guess that’s something I would have liked to have spent more time on because you can kind of find then, in the edit, that you’re trying to really narrow down the script and turn it into something that’s not giving away too much information. You’re trying to find that balance of not explaining too much and overexplaining. With the short films, they’re just two-dimensional things. Mine were very much just nameless characters in a horror sequence as such with no real setup. You just get on board straight away, like in Hatch, [when] this guy lays an egg, you don’t question it. You don’t have to explain why. I think with a feature film, there’s a little bit more explaining to do. That was new to me. I find that now, as I’m working on my second film, that I’m taking what I learned on your first one and getting that balance a little bit better.
As a filmmaker who writes, directs, and edits, do you shoot with the edit in mind? Does that make your job easier?
Oh, God yeah! I would arrive very much prepared because it’s very easy to storyboard and to plan everything out when you’re sitting down with a cup of tea and you’re not under any pressure. And then when you get on to the set, of course, the clock is ticking. If suddenly you realize that you’ve got to turn three shots into one shot or three setups into one setup, you’ve got to make a decision very quickly, so you have to see it in your head. So, for me, it was very helpful at times.
Do you think you’ll ever be willing to relinquish some of that creative control to outside writers or editors?
Editing? Yes. With this one, I had some great collaborators. There were times when you didn’t have the crew available or you didn’t have the financing, but, yeah, I would love to meet people to collaborate with whether it’s taking my ideas and writing or editing, especially. It would be lovely to have someone else’s take on the film brought to you and you can bounce ideas back and forth. I mean, this is what I do with the actors. I add their ideas. I add mine. Same with the cinematographer. You present him with your ideas, but he might have better ideas than you have. I would hope to get to that someday with editing and all aspects of it.
One of the most frightening aspects of CAVEAT is its disjointed reality. How do you react to audiences and critics who might fault the film for its lack of a traditional narrative?
It’s funny because I’ve read stuff and sometimes they’re saying that I’ve explained too much, and I’ve read criticisms where it says I haven’t explained enough. [Laughs] So you can’t win! I’m a huge fan of ’80s horror films, films like Alone in the Dark from 1982, and things like this. What I like about those [films] is that I would discover them randomly late at night. You know, you’re flicking around channels and they come on and you’re like, “Why have I never heard of this?” Really, my goal, and it sounds so unambitious, was to have something like that with CAVEAT. I never really thought that it would get out like this or that so many people would see it. I always thought it would be something that would kind of disappear and it would end up being discovered like that. I mean, that may still happen, of course. That was my goal, I guess. It was never really to make a surrealist film or anything or even a straight horror film. [I wanted] to make something a little bit strange or ambitious, but ultimately, hopefully entertaining.
You mentioned Alone in the Dark from ’82 and Evil Dead II earlier. What are some of your favorite horror films and who are your directorial influences in the genre?
John Carpenter’s The Thing is probably my favorite film. It’s just amazing. Evil Dead II, as I said. Hideo Nakata’s Ringu – the original Ring film – it’s probably the scariest film ever made just in terms of its sound design and how odd it is. But then, I like the Halloween movies and slasher movies. I’m really a fan of it all. Just because I don’t know how to do a slasher movie or body horror or anything like that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t sit down and love those just as much or even the old films like Don’t Look Now and these kinds of things. I’m a big horror fan. I like a little bit of everything with it.
CAVEAT is a very claustrophobic film, and with the COVID pandemic, most of us have been closed in for a prolonged period of time. How do you think the film speaks to the anxieties of the times?
Weirdly, it is. If I had that script now, I would change a few things. It would be a great film to enter production now. In the mechanics of the story, everybody is socially distanced because [Isaac] is at the end of the chain, and he can’t get into Olga’s room. I suppose, looking at it now, we made this thing long before COVID was anything that we knew was coming, there are some little coincidences like paranoia about people getting too close, for sure. If you think about it, there are some things there.
What do you have coming up next?
I’ve been developing a script for the last year. It’s pretty much good to go now. Now, it’s just to get that financing and go again. Hopefully soon. It’s another horror film. I sometimes think of CAVEAT as my film school. It’s your first time out and you’re learning all these things. I want to see if I can improve upon what I’ve done. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of CAVEAT, but like anything you do, you try to take it a step up next time and keep learning and building on what you’ve done.
CAVEAT is available now, exclusively on Shudder.