Look, cellars are inherently creepy. Nothing about them has ever screamed, “Hey. I’m a welcoming environment. Come explore my internal darkness.” So, the film aptly titled THE CELLAR had my attention almost immediately. An atmospheric, foreboding place ripe for creative inspiration, the potential for what could be done is vast. Unfortunately, despite the initial creepy mystery that grips us early on in the film, the cliches that riddle the story are more so than not. By the time we come full circle, one wonders how the story and its overall impact might have faired with shaving off some of the more predictable moments.
THE CELLAR is written and directed by Brendan Muldowney, who derived inspiration for the feature film from his horror short The Ten Steps (which you can check out on Youtube here). The film stars Elisha Cuthbert (House of Wax), Eoin Macken (“Nightflyers”), Abby Fitz (“Der Irland-Krimi”), and Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady (“Kin”).
In THE CELLAR, we’re introduced to the Woods family, which consists of matriarch Keira Woods, Brian Woods, teenage anarchist Ellie Woods, and the youngest child Steve Woods. Having just recently moved into a house acquired at an auction, emotions are high. The Woods must secure a business deal or risk going completely under. Ellie has been ripped away from her friends and what she knew. Steve is the odd one out, left to his own devices while everyone stews in their own worlds.
On the night while working on an important deal, Ellie goes missing during a power cut. Keira knows something is awry despite the fact that her relationship with Ellie as we come to learn has been steadily growing in distance. Clues start to pile up as she investigates strange things happening in the house. Upon discovering that the house is sus beyond her wildest imaginations, Keira is led into a battle against the evil the house holds or risk losing everything she holds dear.
First off, this film is another lesson for millennials and the older Gen Z-ers as to why we cannot buy homes at auction sites. No matter how much we want to own one. Awful jokes aside, the expansion of Muldowney’s original short into this feature-length film is an ambitious one. There’s always a risk and, for the most part, it does pay off. Where the expanded storyline falters is in its leaning in cliched haunting territory. Convenient plot devices arise to keep the story going, but it has the capacity to undercut some audience interest the further we dive in. That said, Muldowney finds success when he brings the story full circle in its climax, introducing something that will leave many thinking long after the credits wrap.
Elisha Cuthbert takes center stage here in THE CELLAR and, for the most part, her performance works. The matriarch keeping the house and family together, you can’t help but sympathize as the character Keira is juggling all of these various things. So much is riding on her, and we get to see Cuthbert reveal the cracks under the surface once Ellie disappears. Eoin Macken doesn’t get as much to do and – arguably – is the least memorable of the characters onscreen. Whether due to how the character was written, Macken’s performance, or a little bit of both, by film’s end, it didn’t read as if the father needed to be included in the storyline.
I can’t discuss performances without highlighting the Abby Fitz and Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady. Both do great work here in THE CELLAR, with Fitz’s performance standing out more with a second viewing. While Fitz isn’t onscreen as much compared to the rest of the cast, it’s in that downward descent that the film becomes hers. Tom Comerford, ISC‘s camera captures all of her emotions. The fear and then aching calm that grips her once she reaches that assumed final step. As the forgotten youngest child, you can’t help but feel the distance with Fitzmaurice-Brady’s Steve. Well done to the both of them.
Like any good old haunted house-oriented film, the house is as much of a character as the people occupying it. Thus, the production and set design are key. This is where production designer Owen Power‘s work comes into play. With a variety of elements in the house serving as breadcrumbs in Kiera’s search, finding the balance of just subtle enough when it comes to the details had to have been the devil’s task. Power executes this balance well enough, with Comerford’s camera work drawing the audience to clue in long before Kiera does.
As a whole, I’d say THE CELLAR is a competently done film. The trope-like beats the story hits are all too familiar, which will deter some viewers. In this regard, the film isn’t reinventing the wheel in the haunting sphere. That said, the last 20 minutes and the overall execution are where things take a surprising turn. And, just when you think there’s a cop-out towards the ends, Muldowney pulls a Pietro ala Age of Ultron. The audience might not see that ending coming. But is it worth the wait? I’m not sure.
A film that will most likely be divisive, which in all consideration what isn’t these days, THE CELLAR treads familiar ground, with its surprises being held a little too late in the game for a strong impact.
THE CELLAR had its World Premiere at SXSW on March 12, 2022. THE CELLAR will have a day-and-date premiere on April 15th, streaming exclusively on Shudder in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand with a U.S. theatrical release through RLJE Films, a business unit of AMC Networks.
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