Sometimes when I watch a horror movie, especially a shoestring production like Caveat, I like to think about how it would work as a short story. Horror as a genre often deals much more in mood and atmosphere than straight narrative, which makes it great for short stories as evidenced by H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King’s more effective shorts—what’s upsetting is not necessarily the events of the story, but the overall spirit of ruin. Nothing has ever happened before this, and nothing will ever happen after.
This is the feeling Caveat excels at. The movie follows a drifter named Isaac (Jonathan French) as he takes a straightforward-sounding job from a man who claims to know him, though Isaac can’t seem to place where they met: the man’s brother has died, leaving his mentally unbalanced niece, Olga (Leila Sykes), in the house alone. Could Isaac please keep her company while the family’s affairs are settled? The catch is that Olga gets very upset about the possibility of people entering her room, so Isaac will have to wear a chained harness that stops short of her door to put her mind at ease. Would he be okay with that?
This is the sort of gothic horror that relies primarily on setting to convey its dread. Olga’s house is on an island in some backwoods corner of the U.K., and one gets the feeling that she and her family have lived there for centuries, reproducing continually without ever contacting the outside world in any meaningful way. The house seems made out of trash. Everything, including the people, has a texture of decay, like they’re not only falling apart physically but also, somehow, spiritually. Perhaps the most emblematic artifact of this is the movie’s toy rabbit mascot, which seems like it forgot what it was decades ago and has since devolved into something menacing and unhinged.
All this makes for a deep and rich setting that the movie, unfortunately, doesn’t quite manage to take full advantage of. Spooky themes and objects are introduced—the rabbit, the harness, the island’s foxes, Isaac’s history, Olga’s mental illness and that of her family—but their promise never really seems fulfilled. The effect is less the general feeling of threat I think was intended than a parade of things to distract you from thinking too hard about whether this story makes any sense. It’s unclear how much of what’s happening is supernatural or why things are happening the way they are at all, which are not good ambiguities to have when trying to build suspense.
Still, there’s something to be said about horror that decides against logic for the benefit of making an audience feel like they’re going insane. There are jumpscares in Caveat that are effective not because they’re unexpected, but because they feel nightmarish in a way other horror movies don’t go dark enough to achieve. I just don’t think a coherent narrative is as mutually exclusive with this effect as the movie seems to assume.
Caveat streams on Shudder June 3rd (that’s today!).
6/10 A full 3 for the best scary toy mascot I’ve seen in years. Another 3 for making me feel crazy. Minus 4 for going too far and making me feel sane again while I tried to figure out what was going on.