Looking ancient and determined, a toy rabbit beats on a drum. It doesn’t drum for joy or to amuse children. It doesn’t urge you to dance or make music along with it. No, its purpose is more dire than that. This grim, desiccated rabbit only comes to life when it needs to warn you. When the danger is close enough to touch you…that’s when the rabbit plays its song.
So opens Caveat, the disturbing and compelling debut feature from writer-director Damian McCarthy. The story is elliptical and elusive, focusing on three characters who each have their own reasons for providing unreliable accounts of the film’s curious events. Barrett (Ben Caplan) hires his friend Isaac (a marvelously understated Jonathan French) to watch over his niece Olga (Leila Sykes) at the house she once shared with her parents. Her father is dead, her mother is missing, and Olga herself is prone to catatonic episodes. Barrett needs someone there to make sure Olga stays safe, and he will pay Isaac handsomely to stay at the house with her for a few days.
True to the film’s title, the troubling catches to this seemingly easy job begin to pile up: for starters, the house is located on an island and Isaac can’t swim. More bizarrely, Isaac must wear a harness attached to a chain in the basement for the duration of his stay. The length of the chain prevents him from entering many of the rooms, particularly Olga’s bedroom, where Barrett leaves the key to Isaac’s harness. Olga is unpredictable and fond of carrying a crossbow around the house, and an unsettling game of cat-and-mouse begins in this house where secrets lurk around every corner.
Isaac is triply confined. In addition to the shackles he wears and the water that surrounds him, he is trapped by locked doors within his own mind. Isaac suffers from severe memory loss due to a mysterious accident, and the bits of biographical information that Olga and Barrett supply him with don’t match Isaac’s self-perception. It’s already terrifying to watch Isaac struggle to make sense of his nightmarish surroundings and the cloud of confusion within his head…
Then the rabbit plays its warning for him.
Caveat’s scares are simple but surgical in their effectiveness. A light turns on by itself. An eerie painting falls off a wall. A door refuses to stay open. McCarthy layers these hallmarks of haunted house films on top of the dread instilled in the viewer by the rabbit’s horrifying drumbeat to paint a portrait of a disturbingly dysfunctional family. As Isaac uncovers more of Barrett and Olga’s secrets, the film transforms from unnerving to utterly terrifying.
Haunted houses scare us because home is where we’re supposed to be safest. When that safety is threatened — by abuse or mental illness or supernatural menace — the world no longer makes sense. Chained up in someone else’s haunted house, Isaac can’t trust his own memories or the people around him. With ever-growing dread, Caveat suggests terrors beyond the nebulous borders of its frightening narrative, causing viewers to ask themselves how far the walls of a haunted house truly extend.
Caveat is now streaming exclusively on Shudder. Watch the trailer here.