SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! Things get bumping in the night in writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s Irish haunted house movie The Cellar. Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brion (Eoin Macken) move their teenage daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) and young son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) to a spooky old mansion. There are weird symbols carved over the doors in the house, as well as a creepy old cellar. Ellie immediately dislikes it as it is ugly and out in the sticks. Then she gets locked in the cellar for a few minutes, which seals the deal. She swears she is going to leave but agrees to stay with her brother on the first night so her parents can run back to their office.
The kids find an old phonograph that, when played, reads off a spooky old mathematic formula. Later that night, the lights shut off, and Ellie calls Keira, interrupting a creepy marketing meeting. Keira tells Ellie to go down into the cellar and check the fuses. Ellie is scared, but Keira tells her to count her way down the ten steps to the bottom. Keira hears Ellie count to ten on the phone, then eleven and twelve, and so on past twenty until the line dies. When the parents get home, their daughter is nowhere to be found. Where did she go? What do the symbols and math records mean? Who owned this house before? What is in the cellar?
One character in The Cellar mentions simplicity is the key. It sure is the key to this ham-boned haunted house, which is simple to the point of being moronic. One of the best things you can say about Muldowney’s vision is that there are no rubber bats. Also, no one is running around in sheets, and amazingly enough, no clanking chains. Also, no flashes of lightning, which must have taken great restraint as the film makes every remaining hackneyed haunted house move in the book. Doors creak open and suddenly slam shut. Lights go on and off. Over and over… for an hour.
“When the parents get home, their daughter is nowhere to be found.”
What dark forces rise from the pit at the bottom of the titular cellar? In this case, it is the orchestra. Imagine the soundtrack to The Omen with the choir on angel dust. Remember how loud the cacophony of voices got when the monolith appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey? That’s the level of shrillness this choir begins at. There was so much screaming, howling, and sighing it sounded like a Victorian hysteria clinic — all at full blast with a brass section on freebase playing over images of hallways and closed doors.
Muldowney fails to make math scary in any way. The abacus moving by itself and the sound of people counting is more sad than creepy. Also, trying to make the movie seem intelligent by mentioning Schrödinger’s cat has the opposite effect. Also, no one is just finding out about pentagrams this late after high school. Even if they didn’t carve a pentagram in their desk, they sat in one that had one or knew a kid who etched one. If you are going to pull this kind of slow build, there should be some monstrous payoff at the finale. The Cellar has such a payoff, but it still isn’t as big as it needs to be to save itself.
The vision of the abyss in The Cellar needs to outdo a 1980s Dio music video at least, but it does not. If horror flicks came in cans like fake spaghetti, this would be the kind of can-shaped wormy mess that would slowly ooze out when held upside down and shaken.
The Cellar screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
"…simplicity is the key."