Something funny’s going on economically in horror films. In real life you might have a hard time finding anywhere to live that’s both affordable and fit for humans; in horror films, you can’t turn around without meeting someone who actually wants to pay you to stay in their house, or their relative’s house, or the house of someone they claim is their relative, or a house they’re claiming they own, or whatever. One wonders what sort of qualifications are required. It’s nice work if you can get it, is what I’m saying.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t often caveats: don’t look in the creepy basement, don’t go in the creepy attic, don’t worry about those creepy sounds, pretend this creepy doll is a real boy, and all those other standard contractual clauses. The caveat in Caveat is a doozy: Barrett, the employer, tells Isaac, the employee, that Olga, Barrett’s niece and the house’s sole occupant, won’t feel safe with Isaac around unless Isaac wears a great, Gothic S&M harness – it’s the simplest way to ensure that he won’t go into Olga’s room. Isaac protests a little at this, but he never points out that Olga’s room has a lock on it anyway, never mind that the reason Olga even needs someone in the house is because of her habit of becoming catatonic, which means she isn’t safe when she’s alone and out of reach of others. But then no-one ever said Isaac is especially clever. He’s an odd sort: a dour, laconic amnesiac played with gruff intensity by newcomer Jonathan French, whose literally haunted performance imbues the already-bleak film with an unsettling, gruff sort of melancholy.
Because Isaac is by himself throughout most of the film’s runtime, it is mostly carried by him and by writer/director Damian Mc Carthy. Ben Caplan, as Isaac’s employer Barrett, ironically gives off am-dram vibes despite being the most experienced actor in the cast, but luckily has only a few brief scenes; while Leila Sykes, as the only other major character, Olga, is convincingly oddball considering she lives all alone in a decaying house on a remote island. That’s the real star of the film, the house, and like any director worth his salt, Mc Carthy knows how to play to his star’s assets. The house, all peeling wallpaper and foreboding passageways, is framed so oppressively that it’s the scenes in which very little happens that get to the viewer most. That gathering dread is given release in a small number of impressively restrained “setpiece” scares – involving a painting, a fabulously ugly kangaroo toy, a tea cosy, and a superbly nasty Edgar Allan Poe/M.R. James twist – but it’s the way Mc Carthy, composer Richard G. Mitchell, and the sound department craft and maintain the film’s unsettling atmosphere that will keep the viewer returning to what, in The 8th Passenger’s opinion, is the best scary film since Demián Rugna’s masterful Terrified.