The cellar is a special location in horror. It is typically dank and dark, full of cobwebs, dust and neglect, and seldom visited – indeed, the part of the home that is literally underground, and closest to hell. It is also that place in the house where the detritus of a family’s history is stored and hidden away, and as such a zone of buried secrets and psychological repression. It gives rise to what, according variously to H.L. Mencken, or Dorothy Parker, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis, is the most euphonious phrase in the english language, cellar door – a feature which also appears frequently in horror as a conduit between a family’s surface happiness and its darker concealed underside. It is also, unavoidably now, a space of immense cliché. Every horror aficionado knows that one should never go into the basement alone, or indeed at all, if one wishes to see the daylight again. The lights are bound to fail, the torch or smartphone will cast insufficient light, and any hapless visitor is likely to be swallowed whole by what lurks in the shadows.
Writer/director Brendan Muldowney has here built upin his award-winning short The Ten Steps (2004), but merely in calling this expanded feature-length adaptation The Cellar, he is also drawing further on a long cinematic tradition while clearly signalling horror to come – as, in a different way, is the surname of the film’s central family, the Woods. Keira (Elisha Cuthbert), her husband Brian (Eoin Macken), their teenaged daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) and younger son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) have just moved into a big old mansion that they picked up from an auction for a steal. Yet as this thoroughly modern couple works together on an important pitch for a campaign in which an actress will pretend to be an ‘authentic’ lifestyle blogger carefully tailored to appeal to an adolescent demographic, they ignore the shifting needs – and deep unhappiness – of the real teen in their midst.
Accordingly this creepy old house – with its creaking doors, whispering pipes and shoddy electrics – reechoes the dysfunction of its new arrivals, who could themselves do with a bit of rewiring to become better connected with each other. Ellie is left that first night to babysit her brother, and when the lights cut out, she heads reluctantly down to the fusebox in the cellar. Encouraged by Keira on the other end of the phone, Ellie counts all ten of the stairs that she has to descend, but then keeps counting well past that number – and by the time her alarmed parents have come home, all trace of Ellie is gone. The disgruntled teenager has run away before, and the police are not worried – but Keira is convinced that Ellie is still somewhere in the house.
What at first seems a portrait of a family falling apart, soon becomes overdetermined with occult mathematics, experimental alchemy, infernal portals and cosmic horror, as the irrational takes up residence in the house, and normal physics cease to apply. The mansion really is a great set – but as equations invite chaos, as an abacus proves possessed, and as everyone keeps counting up or down, The Cellar proves to be as much figuratively as literally ‘by numbers’. For as the history of the house’s previous occupants emerges, stock scenes also settle in. At least Grand Expositor #1, the ‘genius’ mathematician Dr Remy Fournet (Aaron Monaghan), comes with an eccentric backstory of his own – but although Expositor #2, the house’s previous owner Rose Fetherton (Marie Mullen), is introduced to Keira as someone who “doesn’t speak much”, in fact she talks up a storm, delivering one portentous line after another (“It’s not just the cellar, it’s the whole house”), all seemingly written more for the trailer than the film, and entirely unnecessary for members of the viewing audience (who after all have eyes, and can see what has already been shown without needing further to be told). In fact, all Rose’s talking up of the big bad that haunts the house (“One of the seven princes of Hell”, “A darkness that has existed before the universe began”, etc.) serves ironically to make its actual appearance at the end something of an anticlimax. For nothing undermines the uncanny quite like too much explanation. Meanwhile, what Brian discovers in his investigative work into the sigils placed over all the house’s doorways is more likely to elicit laughter than horror from most viewers.
At least the film’s finale brings a certain satisfaction, riffing on imagery from that great director of basements, Lucio Fulci (The Beyond, 1981; The House By The Cemetery, 1981). That is just it, though – everything in The Cellar seems appropriated and overdone, second-hand and shop-soiled, like a pre-owned home that has seen better days. While there is a great deal of craft in the filmmaking (and Stephen McKeon’s score is terrifying), that atmospheric old dark house has surprisingly little room to accommodate originality. Perhaps that is the film’s ultimate, harrowing message: that the paradigm of togetherness this nuclear family seeks is in fact its own hell of housebound drudgery. Too bad, though, that we never get to know the characters well enough to feel fully the impact of their (never-)end.
Summary: Brendan Muldowney’s creaky haunted house movie takes a modern, dysfunctional family down a staircase to hell