[Screamfest Review] 'Caveat' Takes Viewers on a Tense Journey through a Labyrinthian House of Nightmares
The first night I moved into my old house I spent the first few minutes after nightfall in a bit of a panic because I was pretty sure someone was getting murdered in the woods...
...They weren’t, of course, but the sound coming from the dark and the trees was something I had only heard in movies and nightmares. Little did I know, it’s the naturally occurring sound a fox makes when it gets separated from its family. Probably you think I’m exaggerating when I say a fox cry sounds like a woman in distress but go ahead and Google it. I’ll wait for you.
The stuff of nightmares, right?
Well, it turns out someone in the universe heard my subconscious thoughts about how horrifically effective it is, because writer/director Damian Mc Carthy seems to have wandered around the darkest corners of my brain and thrown together Caveat, which just had its Los Angeles Premiere at Screamfest. I’ve never known a movie to take so many of my own personal and longest standing interests and toss them up on a screen. Turns out, watching the shadow-cogs of my imagination come together leaves me feeling…afraid to sleep. Rife with unreliable narrators, an isolated, labyrinthine house with secrets and holes in its walls, and a deeply unsettling but remarkably protective toy rabbit, Caveat sharpens your nerves before you even get the chance to settle in. You start on the edge of your seat and, for the most part, you either stay there or jump so hard you fall off.
There is so much to love with this film. Atmospheric cinematography and sound design? Check. Breath-catching use of absolute darkness punctuated by shaking flashlight to heighten tension to almost unbearable levels? Check. A toy rabbit that may or may not see ghosts, protecting the worthy inhabitants of its twisted Alice in Wonderland-tinged madhouse? You bet. At least three separate scenes where the only thing keeping me from screaming out loud in the middle of the afternoon was my own hand covering my mouth? Caveat is here to offer it all.
Moe Barrett (Ben Caplan) seems to really enjoy being a rather unique kind of evil. The kind of evil that could convince anyone to do anything and be entirely untrustworthy all at once. I’m still not sure how much of what he says I accept as fact in this entire film. His current scheme is to get an old friend, Issac (Johnathan French), to watch his niece Olga (Leila Sykes) in an isolated and rotting old house. Olga lives more or less alone, save for the occasional screaming fox and her ominous-looking toy rabbit, but Moe doesn’t want to leave her alone. She has, he says, “mental problems”. More specifically, Olga has a form of schizophrenia that often leaves her in a catatonic stupor, as well as a fear of being touched that’s so acute she won’t let anyone set foot in her room. I’m not saying Moe’s full of shit or anything—there’s plenty of evidence to suggest she really might be experiencing what he says she is—but I’m not saying he’s not either. After an extraordinary amount of convincing, Issac agrees to stay on and look after her, making sure to follow all the rules she and Moe set forth to ensure her comfort and safety. But, as he discovers almost immediately, Issac has no idea what kind of rabbit hole he’s agreed to tumble down, nor if he’ll be able to make it out again.
The cinematography by Keiran Fitzgerald, particularly when it comes to the use of darkness and the distortion of bodies and spaces, is next-level tension-building. Pitch darkness isn’t my favorite thing at the best of times, and Caveat weaponizes it to perfection. With respect to the sound design and music by Richard G. Mitchell, this film and its gleefully disturbed ability to play with the interaction between moments of hushed sound and absolute silence punctured with the staccato of the bunny-drum is nerve jangling. Caveat is one of those films that’s so deeply involving I feel like the only safe way to watch it is curled up under a blanket fort with a stuffed bear to hide behind, but also one I want to watch over and over again for all it has to offer in its subtleties.
Speaking of hiding behind stuffed animals, I would be remiss if I did not give credit to the true heroic feat of this film, the drumming bunny with the disturbingly clear eyes and, by extension, the bunny prop designer Lisa Zagone. I don’t know if I want to own this rabbit or bury it in the back of my closet, but it is one hell of an effective element. Despite its dead-but-soul-searing appearance, I think it’s actually supposed to be a rather benevolent force, like the best kind of protector we all want our stuffed companions to be as kids. It and its staccato alert to danger haven’t left my mind in days. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t own it, because if it ever started drumming of its own free will I would go into a total meltdown, but it is without question my favorite element of the film, and only gets better when considered in conjunction with everything else at work.
Coming into this film with a brain as Alice in Wonderland-addled as I have made it both an incredibly rewarding and all the more unsettling watch. I found parallels both direct and indirect all throughout, whether it be through the dilapidated house’s décor or the personalities and actions of some of the characters. Poor Issac and Olga both could function as Alice figures aided by the aged white rabbit—though Olga could also comfortably fit into a Hatter-esque role—and Moe just might be the mad king of the castle. This is one of the darkest iterations of Wonderland I’ve ever seen, and I cannot be convinced it isn’t a possible reading of the film as a whole. I loved this movie and all its darkness, but regardless of whether or not you see Wonderland in this molding old house of secrets, if atmospheric slow-burn folk-ish horror is your thing, Caveat is waiting…and don’t mind the screaming. It’s only the foxes…
By Katelyn Nelson
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