Gruesome Reviews

“The Caretaker” (2016): An Unsettling Slow-Burn That Fits Its Pieces Together Perfectly

Like-minded friends and I have frequently discussed the subject of why we like horror movies.  My usual response is that I love being scared … at least, the safe kind of scared. You know, the kind of scared removed from everyday life. The kind of scared where it’s all over, for the most part, after the credits roll. Oh sure, there are those times you go to bed without shutting off every light, or you leap into bed so whatever is under it won’t be able to reach out and grab you. However, sometimes the horrors of everyday life are mirrored and magnified in a horror movie. Such is the case with The Caretaker.

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The Caretaker focuses on Mallorie and Birdie, Mallorie’s grandmother. Birdie requires a full-time caretaker and the most recent one has apparently walked out, leaving Birdie without care. Mallorie rushes to her side, accompanied by her boyfriend, August, and must determine what the next steps are in providing around-the-clock care for Birdie. Birdie urges her to move in with her and send August away, while August urges her to either hire a new caretaker or move Birdie into a long term care facility. Birdie also has an ulterior motive in luring Mallorie to her side, and though not completely clear, her endgame is decidedly sinister. The story plants two more seeds in the back of our minds, waiting for germination. First, it’s revealed that Birdie is a former  circus medium. Then we learn of Rawdilly, the clown. “Rawdilly, Rawdilly, what do you hear? … The sounds of children hiding in fear.”

The real life horror encountered in the story is that of providing care for loved ones as they become unable to care for themselves. Many of us understand, through experience, the inner struggle created in such situations. On one side of the intrapersonal conflict, there’s the love, obligation, commitment and even guilt we might feel toward the person needing care. On the other side is the reluctance to give up a significant portion of our life to the demands of the loved one needing care. This reluctance is part selfishness and part self-preservation, making the decision even harder. We also experience a feeling of helplessness in not being able to fully resolve their problems or suffering. Now add potential interpersonal conflicts with significant others, siblings, and other family members. They probably sympathize with what we and our loved one are going through, but might disagree in our way of handling it. They also suffer the consequences of our stress and frustration as we sometimes lash out. Then too, they might experience a certain amount of jealousy as we’re not able to devote the usual time to our relationship with them. The situation provides fertile ground for the growth of long lasting anger and resentments. All in all, it’s a truly horrifying experience for everyone involved.

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In his first feature effort, writer Jeremy Robinson effectively incorporates all these potential real life conflicts from Mallorie’s and August’s point of view. We feel the real life horror of a loved one who refuses to take their medication, which in this case is an antipsychotic. We feel the horror of making decisions and taking actions no one should have to contemplate regarding another human being. The story then adds a heaping helping of possible supernatural horror to the mix and the tension and apprehension become positively palpable. Until late in the third act of The Caretaker, the viewer is left in the dark as to whether or not the story is dealing with psychological horror or supernatural horror or both. The story is also deftly told by director Jeff Prugh in his second feature. Clues are dropped and flashbacks are revealed at the right time and in the right way to advance the plot.

One of the main characters in The Caretaker is the house. Everything about it … everything … is reminiscent of houses of my grandparents’ era. The woodwork, door hardware, curtains, furniture, attic, and even bed coverings exude a time that perfectly fits the story.  The lighting and shot angels work to enhance the same feel, right down to the dust motes in the air. (At times, I swear I could smell my grandparent’s house!) Sometimes in a film crew, it’s hard to know where the credit goes, but Jesse Eisenhardt (Cinematography), Kristi Uribes (Production Design), Bryan Black (Set Decoration), and Brett Kreidberg (Costume Design, Birdie’s in particular) all deserve credit for jobs well done.

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The acting also contributed to the effective storytelling within The Caretaker. Meegan Warner  — who’s been busy with credits including TURN (2014-16), Scare Campaign (2016), and Veil (2016) –  does an excellent job portraying the conflicts Mallorie is going through. Newcomer Sean Martini as August seems a little flip at times, but considering the situation, that could be interpreted as an effort to lighten Mallorie’s mood a bit. As irritating as his character is with his constant use of “babe” or “baby,” August does come through for Mallorie in the end. Sondra Kerr Blake is a standout as Birdie, who is in turn sweet, maniacal, or conspiratorial. Blake’s experience goes back to the 1960s and it’s great to see her back at it again. Her range is a great asset to the filmmakers.

Though he has what amounts to a small but key part, I wanted to mention Barry Jenner who plays Birdie’s husband, Rawdilly the clown. Though maybe not recognizable under Rawdilly’s clown makeup, Jenner’s credits include Admiral Ross on 12 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1997-99) and Dr. Jerry Kenderson on 25 episodes of Dallas (1984-86). Jenner also guested in a long list of TV series over the last few decades and is one of those actors you will instantly recognize but might not be able to come up with his name. Jenner died in August 2016 with The Caretaker  being his last feature role. He will live on through his plentiful work onscreen and hopefully, a few more of us will now remember his name.

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The Caretaker is one of those films where all the pieces fit nicely together — screenplay, direction, cinematography, sets, and acting. Even the recordings used and the original music by Darrell Raby work to enhance the mood and the tension of the film. The Caretaker is devoid of jump scares and methodically creates a slow-burn buildup of tension and frisson. In fact the closing scene makes use of an effective dolly zoom to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The identification with familiar real life horrors, the possibility of supernatural influences, the house, and the music all combine to create a very unsettling experience, indeed. But that’s just me.

The Caretaker  4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Jeff Mohr
Jeff lives smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa and is a long-time horror fan. His first remembered encounters with the genre were The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan gorilla chases, and watching the first broadcast of The Twilight Zone episode, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." While he now qualifies as an old fart, he strives to be an Old Boy. Paraphrasing Robert Bloch, he has the heart of a small boy. He keeps it in a jar on his desk.

Jeff has written for Horrornews.net and SQ Horror Magazine. He currently writes for Gruesome Magazine and is a co-host of the Decades of Horror podcasts - The Classic Era, 1970s, and 1980s - and the Gruesome Magazine Podcast.
Jeff Mohr
Jeff lives smack dab in the middle of the cornfields of Iowa and is a long-time horror fan. His first remembered encounters with the genre were The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan gorilla chases, and watching the first broadcast of The Twilight Zone episode, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." While he now qualifies as an old fart, he strives to be an Old Boy. Paraphrasing Robert Bloch, he has the heart of a small boy. He keeps it in a jar on his desk. Jeff has written for Horrornews.net and SQ Horror Magazine. He currently writes for Gruesome Magazine and is a co-host of the Decades of Horror podcasts - The Classic Era, 1970s, and 1980s - and the Gruesome Magazine Podcast.