[SXSW 2022 Review] 'The Cellar' Leads Viewers on a Descent into Familiar but Highly Effective Terror
You know what’s really scary? Math…
…Okay, half-kidding on that one, but I’d be lying if I said numbers and equations don’t start to get a little freaky once you get to geometry. Not just because it’s difficult—I was terrible at it—but because this is where things like alchemy, sinister patterns, and other dimensions begin to come into play. In writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s The Cellar, which just premiered at SXSW, Muldowney proves just how frightening numbers can get…a sentence I never thought I’d write.
Based on his short The Ten Steps, The Cellar follows a family that has just moved into an eerie manor. After the disappearance of her daughter, Ellie (Abby Fitz) during a power outage and with her last words being the muttering of numbers, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) sets out to find her, on a path wrought with strange symbols and equations that appear all throughout the house. Worried that the same thing will happen to their son, Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) and getting no help from her disbelieving husband, Brian (Eoin Macken), it’s up to Keira to solve the puzzle behind Ellie’s vanishing and learn what’s in the cellar before it’s too late.
I won’t tell you what’s actually down there, but I can say one thing, The Cellar is full of boxes and boxes of dread. Muldowney is a master at setting the tone, immediately sucking the audience into this grim story that creeps and slithers. The house at which the story takes place is already unsettling enough, what with its strange symbols over all of the doors, but Muldowney and cinematographer Tom Comerford plunge each and every scene into as much darkness as possible without losing a sense of what’s happening. Heavily textured with muted colors, there is zero sense of joy to be found. In dealing with concepts like dark voids, every inch of the frame is swallowed up by a shadowy darkness that you’ll find yourself staring into, waiting for whatever is coming…and knowing it’s staring right back at you. Moments in the cellar are particularly unnerving, with Muldowney cleverly employing distant wide-shots that make the characters seem small in a basement so dark it could go on forever.
Stephen McKeon’s titillating score enhances the feeling of a hungry blackness anxious to devour everything, drawing from various styles such as slow, bellowing rumbles, mysterious incantations, and a few notes that will feel highly reminiscent of The Shining. The Cellar leans heavily into the idea of “less is more”—arguably a little too much—letting McKeon’s score and an unnerving sound design that creaks, groans and growls do all of the work to imply something truly monstrous hiding just out of sight. This is not a film that believes in jump scares. Instead, Muldowney draws fear from the imagination of the viewer and the idea that what we conjure in our minds will be scarier than anything he can show us. And it works. Frequently.
As you can probably infer from the above, The Cellar isn’t a fast moving, scream boo at you until you piss your pants kind of haunter. This is a gradual terror that burrows deep down into your goosebumpy flesh instead of ripping it clean off. Watching The Cellar is like descending an endless staircase to nowhere, enveloped by nothing but darkness and the bellowing of something hideous echoing all around you. It’s a chilling experience, but it can get a tad repetitive as well. You can only zoom in on so many voids of blackness and doors that creak open before seeing nothing lets the suspense wear off and gives an audience the frustrating craving for more. I enjoy a good, slow creeper, but I wouldn’t be surprised if The Cellar happens to lose less patient viewers about midway through with its by the numbers (heh) script.
A shame, because the ideas present are fascinating. Without giving too much away--
POSSIBLE SPOILER AHEAD
--The Cellar is similar to the likes of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House”, combining the haunted house scenario with geometry (sorry, no rats with human faces, though). Sure, The Cellar otherwise feels all too familiar with your standard tropes of the eerie old house with a sinister past (research houses before you buy them!), characters that show up in one scene to dump exposition, and the overdone husband who doesn’t believe his wife about all of the obviously creepy shit going on. Hell, we even get the ole ball bouncing down the stairs bit. Still, the ideas present are unique enough to maintain interest.
Not so much with the characters.
The Cellar takes a nasty fall down the stairs when it comes to character development. Early on, we get the vibe that Keira and Ellie have a prickly relationship, especially considering that Keira and Brian are some sort of social media campaign developers who promote internet toxicity while Ellie faces struggles with bullying online, but this theme isn’t explored enough to have much of an impact. Cuthbert is believable as a mother desperate to find her daughter, Ellie’s disappearance a metaphor for her fear of losing their relationship, but there’s not much else to either. As for Brian and Steven, both fall into the background and might as well be just as lost as Ellie. Like the muted colors, the characters are just as dull.
Muldowney’s film does eventually reward patient viewers with a high-note of a finale that explodes into terror (along with some frightening FX), but it all comes so late that The Cellar is ultimately underwhelming. Still, The Cellar is a well-crafted, dread-filled mystery perfect for a few good scares in the dark. Just remember, when you stare into the darkness, it stares back at you.
The Cellar comes to Shudder April 15th with a day and date theatrical release through RLJE Films.
By Matt Konopka