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HARNESSING THE SCARES
Review: RJ Bland
Babysitting has always been a bit of a thankless task. Being home alone in someone else's house with the responsibility of looking after some little brat (or two) is not usually worth the pittance you get paid at the end. Plus, it's pretty boring. But spare a thought for babysitters in horror movies. They're a bunch who have been terrorised for decades. Perhaps the most famous of these is Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) who faced off against Michael Myers in the middle of a babysitting gig in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). A year later came When A Stranger Calls, a film whose opening twenty minutes are solely dedicated to the threat facing a young babysitter. And in Ti West's House of the Devil (2009), a college student unwisely agrees to look after the sickly elderly mother of a rather odd couple in the middle of nowhere. Although the trope seems to consist of a young woman all alone in unfamiliar surroundings and being targeted, there are exceptions to this rule. In The Babysitter (2017), although she is indeed a young woman, Bee (Samara Weaving) is anything but a vulnerable potential victim and the film has a lot of fun in playing with audience expectation. In most of these cases, there are no red flags to forewarn of any possible danger inherent with taking these jobs on. However, in Damian Mc Carthy's Caveat, those warning signs are there from the outset.
Isaac is a bit of an aimless drifter but when his friend/landlord Barret offers him some work, things look like they might be on the up. Unfortunately, Isaac has recently been involved in an accident and is suffering from partial memory loss. He doesn't really remember his friend that well but the money on offer is good. However the proposition is slightly odd. Barret wants Isaac to look after his niece Olga, for several days. However there are a few caveats. For a start, Olga is not a child, she is a young woman. She's also suffering from some kind of mental malaise brought on by the disappearance of her mother and the suicide of her father. Olga returns to her parents' home from time to time and finds it difficult to leave and Barret wants Isaac to make sure she is safe. When they get there Isaac encounters a few more unwelcome surprises. Firstly, the house is in the middle of nowhere and is on an island, only accessible by rowboat. Not great considering Isaac can't swim. Secondly, the house itself is a crumbling, rotten (and really creepy) wreck. Lastly, Isaac is to be be bound inside the house with chains and a harness so he can go (almost) anywhere inside the house but he won't be able to enter Olga's bedroom, as she has a paranoia that someone may attack her while she sleeps in her bed. That all sounds legit right? Barret leaves and Isaac tries to get his bearings but the more he explores his temporary new abode, the more he begins to discover that this house and the family that used to dwell within, may some even more troubling secrets...
Caveat is director Damian Mc Carthy's first feature film and you'll do well to find a more assured and effective debut. Although the budgetary restraints mean that the single location threatens to become a little wearisome at times, Mc Carthy exploits it for all its worth and manages to create a horror film that is, at times, genuinely unnerving.
Although there are a couple of jump scares, Caveat is all about atmosphere building and as soon as we enter the rotting house, it begins in earnest. There's the grotesque mechanical bunny with eyes that are deeply unsettling. The labyrinthine corridors and hallways of the house itself are utterly disorientating too and it's a maze like prison from which our lead cannot escape. The walls are yellow and festering and the rooms themselves are filled with oddities and potential clues to what is going on (or has been going on) inside this building. Mc Carthy shoots it all with low level lighting and a dank aesthetic that make our stay in this old house even more unbearable. Isaac and Olga are a deeply mistrusting pair too, their relationship nearly always strained. It may feel as if their performances are slightly wooden at times but actually, their muted turns only serve to make everything feel that bit more uncanny. Like a nightmare, everything is slightly off. And Jonathan French deserves special praise for playing the shell-shocked Isaac – a character who is still easy to root for, despite a potentially shade past.
Although Caveat gives us some exposition towards the end, it is careful not to give everything away. It's happy to give us enough to feel satisfied but still leave some space for ambiguity and speculation. It's a film that demands a sense of patience to get the most out of its unique eerie charm but it also respects the viewer enough not to think they have to have their hand held at every turn.
In many ways, Caveat is the perfect antidote to the horror blockbusters that are currently making big money at the box office. It's not high concept, it's not full of star names and it's not a rollercoaster ride. It's slow and subtle and takes its time to draw you in and will stay with you perhaps a little longer too after the credits have finished rolling.
Damian Mc Carthy's feature debut is nightmarish slow burn that revels in inducing anxiety and tension. And it's a reminder of how much can be done with a tiny budget but a lot of craft.
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