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Review: Weirdness upon weirdness, ‘Caveat’ stacks the horror on decay

A woman covers her eyes with her hands while sitting on the floor next to a bed.
Leila Sykes as Olga in the 2020 horror drama “Caveat.”
(Shudder)

One reason why horror is such a popular genre for filmmakers on a tight budget is that it doesn’t take much money to give an audience the creeps. In Damian Mc Carthy’s “Caveat,” all the writer-director needs is a ragged rabbit toy, some grotesquely contorted faces, and a few tiny portals and passageways that offer glimpses of things no one should see.

For a first-time feature filmmaker, Mc Carthy shows a remarkable level of confidence in “Caveat,” working with a plot so minimal that it sometimes ranges into pure sensation. After a brief set-up, this movie quickly becomes the story of a few eccentric and potentially dangerous people circling each other in the darkened corridors of a crumbling house on a remote Irish island.

Jonathan French plays Isaac, an amnesiac vagabond who gets hired by the shifty Barrett (Ben Caplan) to watch over the unstable Olga (Leila Sykes). Inevitably, the job proves more complicated than promised. For one thing, Isaac has to wear a heavy vest attached to a chain so that he can’t access certain parts of the house. Also, Olga has a habit of roaming the halls with a loaded crossbow — that is, when she’s not sitting immobile on her bed for hours with her hands over her eyes.

Olga’s stiff and awkward catatonic pose is part of a visual motif in “Caveat.” Isaac is also disturbed by some of the portraits lying around the old estate, of people with bugged eyes and grimacing mouths. When he gets bored and paranoid and starts poking around the hidden parts of the house his chain can reach, Isaac finds another unsettling face, attached to a rotting corpse.

In the film’s final third, Mc Carthy offers explanations for what’s really been happening at this funky manor. Filling in the gaps was probably necessary from a narrative perspective, but it saps “Caveat” of some of its hard-to-quantify eeriness. The movie works best when it’s just piling weirdness on top of weirdness — especially when Isaac is cutting holes everywhere so that he can crawl through walls or spy on Olga.

For the most part, though, Mc Carthy remains content to explore mesmerizing and odd visual and sonic textures: from the deep shag of Isaac’s beard to the rat-a-tat drums of Olga’s hideous-looking mechanical bunny. “Caveat” is like a gothic horror tone poem, with pungent notes of decay.

'Caveat'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Available on Shudder

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