The Cellar centres on Brian and Keira Woods (Eoin Macken and Elisha Cuthbert), who have purchased and moved into an old country house in Ireland, along with their young son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) and teenage daughter, Ellie (Abby Fitz). From the moment she enters the house, Ellie is unhappy, and her distaste quickly becomes terror, as she is inexplicably spooked by the house’s cellar. Her seemingly irrational fears, however, soon appear to be well placed as she descends into the dark cellar during a power cut and vanishes without a trace.
If this setup – old country house, spooky cellar, power cuts and unhappy teenagers – sounds clichéd to you, you’d be right, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Unlike many of the films to come out of Ireland’s recent horror film boom, with original tales or fresh twists on old stories coming from filmmakers such as Kate Dolan (You Are Not My Mother), Chris Baugh (Boys from County Hell), Paddy Murphy (The Perished, In Memoriam) and Damian McCarthy (Caveat), Brendan Muldowney’s latest is an exasperating exercise in trope, cliché, and familiar territory so well tread that it’s practically eroded.
In The Cellar, we are repeatedly subjected to ominous, overlong static shots and cutaways of inanimate objects and spots within the house, scored by droning, overwhelmingly grating Gregorian-style chants which build to shrieking, ear-piercing crescendos. We see doors slam shut or fly open of their own accord, teenagers rebelling against every choice their parents make, and characters being mysteriously locked in dark rooms and being convinced that the other occupants are messing with them.
If this laundry list of clichés sounds uninteresting to you, be warned: all of this occurs within just the first ten minutes of the film. Even later on, as Muldowney draws direct influence from specific films, he seems to fundamentally lack an understanding of what makes this work. An inexplicable riff on the Evil Dead’s Professor Knowby tape reading recurs throughout with the gramophone and LP, but lacking the skilled sound work, direction and quick, competent pacing of Raimi’s usage. A riff on The Changeling’s bouncing ball motif lacks the relevance of that film’s important and tragic context for such imagery.
It is not just re-treads of better and/or overdone ideas in which the writing and direction fails, it is also in the lack of understanding of what inherently makes scares work. The scares here centre around the sound of Ellie’s counting down the steps while on the phone to Keira as she enters the cellar in search of a fuse box but counting far too many steps. Truly horrifying stuff. This thread continues to a mind-numbing extent, with ‘creepy’ counting recited throughout both by other characters and over the phone.
Another prime example is the emblem reading “Solve Et Coagula” above the house’s front door, which is framed to seem mysterious and dread inducing, but is immediately explained through a google search in the very next scene, giving the audience no chance to stew in the mystery and feel the suspense grow. It’s just one of countless failures to utilise the most basic possible principles of writing, directing and editing a horror picture.
As The Cellar goes on, it never ceases to amaze with its gall in utilising tired tropes, such as the Schrödinger’s cat exposition dump or the ‘surprise’ revelation that, when combined, random shapes scattered around the walls of the house form a pentagram. When the film does thankfully come toward its end, it does so on an attempt to widen the scope of the world and the story but merely shifts from a small dull mess to a medium-sized dull mess while throwing in a laughable Shyamalan-esque plot twist.
The performances here are, at best, flat, lifeless and wooden, particularly Elisha Cuthbert, who dominates in terms of screen time. With that said, it’s hard to blame her for phoning it in when the most profound dialogue she must deliver includes such gems as, “You didn’t hear her… counting”.
Overall, The Cellar is a disappointment on every level, both creative and technical. It feels almost as if the premise was born from a jokey conversation about how math is terrifying and algebra is from hell. Indeed, this jokey origin wouldn’t surprise me, as The Cellar is so ridiculous, flat and unoriginal that, if it wasn’t so laughably self-serious, it could have had a solid shelf life as a parody film.