Filmmakers tread familiar territory for a reason: because it works. Doors that slam shut by themselves, ominous whispers, eerie POV shots that suggest the presence of something sinister…these are tried-and-true horror staples. But audiences have seen so much of these elements that they need something more from their “creepy old house” movies. The Cellar, writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s newest film out of SXSW, tries to inject some style into its familiar story, but it ultimately comes up short in crafting a memorable horror movie.
Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) have just moved into a new house with their children Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) and Ellie (Abby Fitz). Keira is thrilled by the house’s impressive size, but Ellie is immediately creeped out by the dark, foreboding cellar. Ellie is quickly proven right when she has to venture into the cellar after a blackout to check the circuit breaker. Keira and Brian are both at work, and as Keira stays on the phone with Ellie to talk her through her terrifying journey into the cellar, she realizes by her tone of voice that something is very wrong. When Keira and Brian return home, Ellie is missing. With the police and Brian alike assuming that Ellie just ran away, Keira must work on her own to find out what happened to her daughter in the cellar and how to get her back.
It’s a pretty basic possession/haunted house set-up: a family moves in, one member knows right away that something is wrong but is dismissed by the others, something awful happens to a child, and the parent who believes in what is happening must mount a one-person battle against the supernatural to save the child. There’s nothing wrong with that formula. Variations on that theme have created some of the most enduring haunted house horror in cinema history: Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring…the list goes on. The problem arises when a film can’t differentiate itself enough from the countless other films that have adhered to that same formula. This is The Cellar’s issue: with very few exceptions, its style, scares, and narrative beats feel so familiar that it risks being forgotten as soon as the credits roll.
The best way to describe The Cellar is “competent.” The cast members all give good performances. The score is suitably ominous. The cinematography, though too dark at times, does a good job of insinuating evil forces at work in the house. But there’s little originality to the film. It all feels very boilerplate. There are occasional standout moments, however, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. The phone call between Keira and Ellie takes a surprising, terrifying turn. When Keira drives to see the former owner of the house to try to get some information on the code hidden in the Hebrew letters over the doorways, there’s a stylish drone shot of a forebodingly cloudy sky reflected in a lake. She buys a blacklight to do her own forensics investigation, since the police refuse to look for evidence in the cellar, and she makes an eerie discovery that serves as the most colorful shot in the whole film. That kind of moodiness and visual vigor would have been most welcome in the rest of the film, but alas, there are few examples of it to mention.
The finale is where The Cellar truly shines, but it comes as too little, too late. Keira unlocks the mystery, and the film shows off some striking imagery that feels like The Beyond by way of Silent Hill. Puzzlingly, it doesn’t seem very interested in lingering on these shots; it’s especially maddening when Keira descends down a long staircase with only a flashlight to guide her. It’s a beautiful shot, building tension and symbolizing just how far she will go to find her daughter, but the film cuts away so quickly that you’re almost unsure you even saw it. To turn one of the best shots into the film into a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment feels like a waste, and it leaves you feeling more confused than frightened.
There are few things I love more than a movie featuring disembodied whispers, creaking doors, and flickering lights. But after decades of these films, you have to do something to stand out from the crowd. The Cellar shies away from its most promising moments and effective scares, and its strong finale isn’t strong enough to salvage what is an ultimately forgettable film. If you like creepy old house movies, you’ll find things to like in The Cellar, but there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.