By: Steph Cannon
Memory and how the human brain processes moments in our lives, are complex matters. Our minds are able to hold endless amounts of information and past experiences, while also being so fragile that trauma can cause knowledge to slip through the cracks of our psyche. CAVEAT, the debut film written and directed by Damian McCarthy, explores this notion against a moody and atmospheric setting.
Recently released from the hospital, following an unspecified injury, Isaac (Jonathan French) is offered an opportunity to earn quick money by looking after his former landlord Barrett's (Ben Caplan) niece, Olga (Leila Sykes). Her father recently died, and her mother has gone missing. Haunted by these events, she refuses to leave her home.
It's apparent that Isaac is still suffering from cognitive issues, but he’s in need of funds, so it makes sense for him to accept the job - even after Barrett explains that Olga is "psychologically troubled." Barrett downplays this aspect by tantalizing Isaac with a payment of $200 per day, for what he describes as a "babysitting job." Isaac smartly states what, we as an audience, are already thinking, with a perfectly-timed, "There's got to be more to it than that."
That statement, and the title of the film, quickly come to light as Barrett brings Isaac to Olga's home, which is isolated on a remote island, accessible only by boat. We get the sense that even with Isaac's memory issues, there's actual gaslighting going on, as he points out that this was never mentioned, but is brushed off by Barrett. Once inside the dilapidated house, the "caveat" is presented to Isaac; he must be chained up the entire time by a leather vest, his movements and freedom restricted. Barrett is hastily and overly dismissive as he explains, rather poorly, that Olga's issues cause her to be deeply fearful of anyone getting too close to her or entering her room. Naturally, Isaac emphatically declines, but is quickly worn down, and eventually accepts the unusual requirement.
Isaac's introduction to Olga comes in the middle of one of her "episodes," which leaves her in a catatonic state, unable to speak or hear what's going on around her. Once Barrett leaves, Isaac is able to explore the house within the confines of his tether. The set designs of the house and the secluded island are brilliant and intricate. There are creepy elements peppered throughout to amp up the off-putting feeling, such as a disheveled stuffed bunny with a drum that plays on its own. Tone and ambience are everything in making the viewer feel immediately unsettled, as we discover right along with Isaac the dark secrets within the home, Olga, and himself.
Once Olga snaps out of her state, a game of cat and mouse quickly ensues between her and Isaac. Despite her psychological ailments, she is cunning and intuitive enough to be two steps ahead, sometimes literally, of Isaac as the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together. The apparent gaps in his memory trickle back in as the truth unfolds, and it's revealed that Isaac's ties to the home, and what transpired there, may be much more complicated. It truly brings everything full circle to his original statement, "There must be more to it than that."
The movie's strength comes with its pacing and Isaac's character arc. This is a movie that never gets in its own way. No scene feels wasted or unnecessary. Isaac's willingness to be put into this situation, and the eventual discovery of his involvement with the house, never feels outlandish, because we are always given a reason for his actions. Combine the right amount of paranormal and psychological chills, along with a tight and original plot, and CAVEAT stands out as a dark and moody must-watch this summer.
CAVEAT begins streaming exclusively on Shudder on June 3rd.