'Caveat' Review: More a lullaby than a nightmare

Damian Mc Carthy's 'Caveat' is an experiment in ignoring red flags and what some men are willing to do for a modest sum of money.

Don't put the bunny from 'Caveat' back in the box.
(Image: © Shudder)

What to Watch Verdict

'Caveat' is a confident debut but won't be everyone's speed, given how unknowns and sluggish pacing become the film's ultimate signatures.


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    🐇 Creepy plaything.

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    🐇 A bit of a paranoid puzzler.

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    🐇 An ambitious narrative.


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    🐇 Runs itself in circles.

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    🐇 Lacks any real punch.

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    🐇 Favors the timid simmer over outright boil.

If Caveat shares any DNA with Irish horror brethren such as The Hole In The Ground or Without Name, it's a "curio" classification. Writer and director Damian Mc Carthy takes lockbox confinement and mixes in psychological unrest within dilapidated architectural confines, yet it's a plodding, unenthusiastic finish. Some are connecting dots between Caveat and Saw, but this bloodless "trap" recalls no malice or mutilation associated with Jigsaw. Expect a reserved, less dangerous thriller predicated on unfathomable trustworthiness—excitement rarely passes a murmur, and shivers are even scanter.

Jonathan French stars as a scruffy, disheveled loner named Isaac, who Barret (Ben Caplan) hires for a five-day gig. Isaac's instructions are simple: keep watch over Olga (Leila Sykes), earn $200 a day, and oh yeah, wear a leather harness chained to an iron basement hook. Barret assures it's just a safety precaution for Olga, who is extraordinarily temperamental and suffers from excitement-driven narcolepsy. Isaac agrees, and is left alone in a crumbling home while Olga patrols hallways with a crossbow when not frozen by slumber. Sure, why not?

Any hints towards suspense materialize when Olga's parents become discussion points, both since removed from the equation. Olga revisits the story's rotting estate location to remember her father, who committed suicide while locked away in the very basement where Issac's restraint is anchored—which doesn't even reach the moldy bathroom toilet. It's all Mc Carthy wants to offer his audience in terms of oddity-driven lore, because of course, Isaac can't resist his payday even though imprisonment is part of the deal. Tingles of suspense hinge on Isaac and Olga's relationship, along with the skeletons hidden in the house's exposed nooks and crannies—muffled, muted flickers of paranoia hatch as mistrust stems from Barret's interruptions.

Caveat doesn't offer much else beyond a painting with shifty eyes and a drumming rabbit dolly that might or might not ward off unwanted presences. It's a movie about sinful mistakes, karmatic upheaval, and unshakable grief, but not a particularly escalating one. Mc Carthy's brand of hushed mystery shuffles around dust-thick hallways that the camera dares suggest might not be empty, and yet rarely reveals something sinister. Over and over, we're teased by a single morbid factor as the film's sole petrifying presence; otherwise, the non-existent bluster of Caveat is rather unremarkable—almost like a sleepwalk. The independent spirit of a catch-and-release chase is played on such a low volume, as Isaac finds himself a victim of self-circumstance.

I can reconcile the housebound inexplicability that might entice those seeking horror that remains ambiguous, but such lowly energies become my barrier. Caveat is a tonal whimper and wields its terror with an incompleteness that nary raises a stray neck hair. The performances of French and Leila Sykes are driven by limited reactions, while recycled air grows staler than the escaping stench from an opened refrigerator that died months ago. It's more a lullaby than a nightmare, and while confident, carries a lack of technical polish that can't even squeeze graveyard jolts out of a repurposed corpse. Man enters house, man key-locks harness, man realizes his alarming situation is indeed alarming—the whole tale lacks a factor of magnificence to amplify its simplicity.

That's not to say minimalism can't intrigue, but the way Caveat laboriously strings audiences along is my kryptonite. I've been boggled many times and ultimately enthralled—something like The Block Island Sound or Sator—but what's missing here is a larger narrative haymaker. Olga's defensive stances? The rata-ta-ta of the bunny's drumsticks? That gaze-into-you painting? I dare say Damian Mc Carthy never maximizes tension, albeit chasing the high of presences around t-shaped corners or past door frames out of Isaac's reach. There's a shallow bag of tricks propelling this higher-concept slow burner that simmers, simmers a bit more, than cuts the heat. Not my cup of tea—served lukewarm and with flavors that leave you guessing because they're too understated to decipher.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.