The Cellar - New Release Review
Director: Brendan Muldowney
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Eoin Macken, Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady, Abby Fitz
Written by: Brendan Muldowney
Produced by: Conor Barry, Richard Bolger, Benoit Roland
Cinematography by: Tom Comerford
Original Score by: Stephen McKeon
Keira Woods' daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family's souls forever.
If horror films have taught us anything about cellars it's that they are best left undisturbed. So many of them hold dark secrets or curses that should remain hidden but there's no fun in this lack of discovery. If Regan didn't contact Captain Howdy through a Ouija board found in her basement we wouldn't have ‘The Exorcist’ and if Ash Williams and his friends didn't discover the Necronomicon in the cellar of their cabin in the woods there would be no ‘Evil Dead’ franchise. They are the perfect setting for mystery, intrigue and terror as we find out in ‘The Cellar’.
The film opens with a family of four moving to an old rural house in Ireland with strange symbols above the doors. When their daughter mysteriously vanishes after venturing into the cellar, the mother begins a journey down a dark and mysterious path to find her but she soon finds out that everything is not as it seems.
The set up is a textbook example of “family based” horror movies. Family moves into a new home, the family argues about the move and then something bad happens. We've seen this a million times before but what sets ‘The Cellar’ apart are a few twists and turns in an attempt to break away from convention courtesy of Writer/Director Brendan Muldowney. It moves from the realm of the ghost story into the arena of Cosmic horror that is like a mish-mash of James Wan's ‘Insidious’ and Lucio Fulci's 'The Beyond’.
There's no doubt that portraying Cosmic horror on film is an extremely difficult feat to pull off as you are essentially trying to visualize something indescribable. ‘The Cellar’ circumnavigates this idea through mathematical equations by way of Schrödinger to explain how the titular room is a doorway to another dimension. Yes it doesn't make a lot of sense but it's hokey fun that you can either go with or over examine. Muldowney seems to be committed to drawing as much horror from the premise as possible as the room is explored through a series of slow panning camera movements throughout the house that linger on the door to the cellar. It goes a long way in establishing and maintaining a constant atmosphere of dread but tonally it conflicts with the sillier aspects of the premise.
Even when there is so much work placed into creating a sense of unease, the score undermines it by manipulating the audience in the worst way possible. Whilst it is pretty standard fare for a horror film with atmospheric drones underlaid by a mixture of shrieking and drawn out strings the problem lies in how it is used. Slowly built tension is instantly dashed by the bombast of as it overwhelms rather than compliments any given scene in what is the equivalent of the director turning to the audience every few seconds and asking if they are scared yet.
In terms of the cast, everyone does a solid job with Elisha Cuthbert (as the mother, Keira) being the biggest name of the cast. Whilst you don't completely feel the emotional weight of her family's predicament she engages the audience enough to sustain the film during its duller moments through her inquisitive nature. Her growing sense of anxiety as she discovers more and more about the truth of the dreaded cellar is quite effective even when it is at odds with the more illogical steps in the script. For example when her son tells her that the last thing her daughter did was listen to a creepy equation read through a record on the gramophone she disregards it completely turning her attention elsewhere instead of listening to it in the hope that it would offer a clue to her daughter's whereabouts.
Despite a good opening the film drags its feet in the second half with almost every dull cliché on show but it really springs to life at the end with some rollercoaster scares and existential horror, however by then it feels like a case of too little too late. Without spoiling it the imagery and creature effects are utilized brilliantly, especially when you consider the low budget. The final shot is what most horror films should aspire to but I can't help but feel Muldowney was working backwards when writing and conceptualizing the film based on this one moment.
There is no denying that Muldowney is swinging for the fences with his ideas but what lets ‘The Cellar’ down is how he fails to nail down the fundamentals in terms of tone and tightening some aspects of the script which makes the film a drag at times especially during the glacial second act. Having said that, the ending takes it up a notch but unfortunately it isn't enough to put ‘The Cellar’ in the pantheon of the greats of Cosmic horror.
- Joseph McElroy
'The Cellar' is released in selected theaters and available to stream on Shudder April 15th