One of the many reasons to love the horror genre is because of its duality. Horror films and shows are constructed to scare you. Directors can employ straight-up jump scares or slow burn to invade your dreams and give you a few sleepless nights. But once you’re done conquering that feeling of fear, you are rewarded with a heartfelt story based on the various shades that constitute humanity. For example, “Under the Shadow (2016)” is about a Djinn haunting and a mother prioritizing her daughter’s safety. “His House (2020)” is about a haunting in a house and also about survivor’s guilt. You get the gist. “The Cellar (2022)” tries to employ this method to examine a strained mother-daughter relationship but ends up being a boring house tour.
Written and directed by Brendan Muldowney, “The Cellar” follows Keira (Elisha Cuthbert), her husband Brian (Eoin Macken), their daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) and their son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady) as they move into an old mansion in the woods. As pointed out by Ellie, the house is obviously filled with creepy pictures, weird markings, and yes, it has the titular cellar. Muldowney wastes no time and establishes this cellar as a gateway to something demonic by getting Ellie stuck in it while insinuating that something’s out to get her. After those tantalizing opening minutes, we’re shown that Ellie and Keira are not on very good terms for some reason. And while it seems like this move to a new house is going to give Keira the opportunity to reconcile with Ellie, she disappears into the cellar, leaving Keira to aimlessly search for her.
Credit where credit’s due, “The Cellar” has a solid opening and an intriguing conclusion. Straight off the bat, the house feels creepy, even before any of the characters address said creepiness. That’s an example of good location scouting and production design. From a writing point of view, Muldowney manages to explain the character dynamics and what’s at stake (Keira and Ellie’s relationship). If you look closely, you’ll see that one of the reasons behind the rift between Keira and Ellie is because Keira sees Ellie’s generation through the lens of social media optics. Ellie’s disappearance is quite intense, and there’s some excellent non-linear editing to extend the echoes of her presence in the house. The concluding moments boast of some decent creature work, make-up, and visual effects. It’s during those final 10-15 minutes that the film’s low-light cinematography makes sense. But all of that is a classic case of too little, too late.
As mentioned before, the investigation into the supernatural, the origin of the entities haunting the central characters, and even the fight for survival is an externalization of the internal battle with one’s personal demons. Now, every film doesn’t have to be the same, and a director is well within their rights to play it straight and chuck all the metaphors out of the proverbial window. In that case, the text has to be substantial enough to justify its lack of subtext. “The Cellar” fails to do so. Muldowney becomes unnecessarily entangled in the details of the plot, the science-fiction elements, and the occult, and forgets to imbue them with the human element. Keira’s grief and frustration over the apparent loss of Ellie are hardly palpable. And the same can be said for Brian and Steven, who barely seem concerned that a member of their family is missing and rarely talk to each other about it either.
The characters in “The Cellar” are poorly written. So, the actors hardly have anything to work with. On top of that, the direction is simply devoid of any empathy. If this is the first time you’re seeing Elisha Cuthbert on-screen, you’ll probably think that she’s incapable of emoting. Thankfully, she has a vast and varied filmography to prove otherwise. At the cost of sounding repetitive, Elisha is playing a mother whose daughter is nowhere to be found, and she’s in the middle of a business deal that’ll make or break her life. Yet you get to see none of that turmoil. If she had even one percent of the anxiety that Toni Collette displayed in Hereditary (2018), the film would’ve become a little more watchable. Abby Fitz shows a lot of promise. But her screen time is cut short for shock value. And the less that’s said about the rest of the cast, the better.
To conclude, “The Cellar” is a generic horror film that squandered its potential for no reason whatsoever. The direction is bland. The writing is underbaked. The actors don’t have enough material to work with. The cinematography is passable. The sound design carries a lot of the film. The score is too plain to stand out. And last but obviously not least, it’s not scary. Not even a bit. If you are easily scared and want to dip your toes into the horror genre, “The Cellar” is probably a good place to start. If you are somewhat of an expert at watching horror-based IPs, maybe give this a pass and seek out better films.
“The Cellar” is a 2022 Horror Film directed by Brendan Muldowney. It had its screening at the SXSW film festival.