[Panic Fest Review] Psychological Chiller ‘Caveat’ Favors Bizarre Atmosphere and Claustrophobic Dread

Memory is a fickle thing. The very faculty that stores and remembers information throughout our lives doesn’t always encode and process the data as it happens. Sometimes memories are unreliable, offering only scrambled fragments upon recollection. Other times, events that occur prove so traumatizing that memory represses it from access. It’s with this that Caveat crafts its weird little haunted house tale, spinning an enigmatic psychological horror movie where memory provides the key.

Loner Isaac (Jonathan French) needs money after an extended stay at the hospital due to an injury that left him with partial memory loss. It prompts him to accept a job offer from his old landlord Barrett (Ben Caplan), to look after his psychologically disturbed niece Olga (Leila Sykes). Olga lives alone in a run-down house on an isolated island, something that Barrett doesn’t initially present in the job description. That trickle truth raises Isaac’s concerns further when he learns that he’ll need to be harnessed and chained to limit his mobility within the house for Olga’s peace of mind. Once left alone with Olga, he realizes it’s not just his ward that brings conflict but another presence within the dilapidated home.

There’s an indie DIY spirit to the production design that lends itself well to the bizarre, claustrophobic atmosphere in writer/director Damian Mc Carthy‘s feature debut. The unnaturally aged and stained wallpaper, the dusty wood floors, haunted portraits that whisper, and even a tattered drumming rabbit toy that chatters to signal an unseen presence all contribute to the feeling that Isaac has fallen through the rabbit hole into a haunted funhouse of sorts. That he’s bound and unable to move freely, forcing him to reach and twist through holes in walls at moments, only exacerbates this feeling.

The trickle truth that began with Isaac’s hiring extends throughout. Olga bristles at Isaac’s arrival and gets downright violent at parts, but also offers a few cryptic teases that prompt his attempts to retrieve his missing memories. Supernatural elements get forgotten in favor of the bizarre family dynamics that left a lasting, tangible imprint on this broken house. The push and pull between Isaac and Olga takes center stage for much of the second act, which helps avoid any reliance on conventional jump scares. 

Distilled to its simplest plot beats, Caveat doesn’t deter much from similar restless spirits and haunted houses that are full of family skeletons. It’s the unique way in which Mc Carthy tells it that makes it fresh. The initial onslaught of idiosyncrasies in this setup slowly makes more sense as new details emerge, and this measured way of doling out information keeps you engaged no matter how far suspension of disbelief can get stretched.

Often in horror, it’s not the first impression that counts but the payoff to the journey. Luckily, Mc Carthy delivers. Once all cards are on the table, the filmmaker lets the action and scares handle the rest. It’s a pretty frightening third act, with some genuine scares thanks to clever staging, dim lighting, and effective sound design. Mc Carthy is also credited as production designer and editor, making it all the more apparent what a labor of love this is. Caveat is a strange little tale full of claustrophobic dread and psychological mystery. It goes to some peculiar places narratively, making for a welcome distraction from the familiar.

Caveat screened at Panic Film Fest. Dark Sky Films plans a release sometime in 2021.