At some point in your life you’ve had the hair on your neck stand on end with the feeling of not being alone. It could be in the comfort of your living room, full lights on, or on a midnight walk to the restroom, lit only by starlight, but you’ve felt it. That creeping unease as your fight or flight kicks into high gear for seemingly no reason. For me, it was my basement growing up. It wasn’t big, but there were plenty of places for things to hide and too many stairs for there to be an easy escape, so almost any time I had to go up those steps alone, I would high-step it, putting on extra speed when I turned off the light on the way up. It always felt like something was going to snatch me from behind. This creeping feeling, the unsettling notion of danger that can’t be explained, is captured wonderfully by writer/director Brendan Muldowney (Pilgrimage) in his latest film, The Cellar, which is having its world premiere at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. There is a problem, though. Discomfort only gets you so far when the narrative gets weighed down by barely there explanations and a mythology cobbled together, making a mockery of the source material.
Seeking a better life for their kids, Keira and Brian Woods (Elisha Cuthbert and Eoin Macken) purchase a house at auction (furnishings included) and move their two kids, Ellie and Steven (Abby Fitz and Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady) straight in. On their first night in the new house, Keira and Brian head for a business meeting, leaving the two kids on their own. When the power goes out and Ellie heads for the cellar to work the breaker, something happens and she disappears. Without leads and firmly aware that Ellie wouldn’t just run away, Keira looks for any piece of evidence, eventually toward the house itself. Turns out the building has a nefarious past of its own and the Woods Family may be its latest victims.
There’s this weird imbalance throughout The Cellar where Muldowney is either giving you exactly what is expected in an attempt to subvert expectations or gives you nothing and hopes you’ll go for it. The opening, for instance, is a slow panning climb of the stairs of the cellar in the house as ominous music plays. The film is called The Cellar, so starting with this implies a certain significance, but it’s also the obvious thing to do. Highlight the steps, enhance their length, focus on the depths from which they start, and the relief of the landing. Not only does this imply a heavy danger, but it establishes the place from which danger is going to come, and it’s inside the house already. There are many moments in the film that feel like the obvious thing, but, more often than not, Muldowney uses that to set up other things so that a payoff doesn’t go down as the audience expects. Because of this, there’s some really great creeping discomfort in several segments of the film well before things get Lovecraftian.
So what’s the problem if there are moments of incredible tension and discomfort?
First, there’s the fact that the film we get should’ve been longer in order to establish relationships between characters more so that when Ellie goes missing, the revelations uncovered in the search for her, the feelings of disbelief and loss of her parents, would come across as more authentic. Ellie is shown with an anarchist novel and plainly states how she hates Mom’s job (we soon learn after this that the parents are marketers who develop social media campaigns that take advantage of the pull of social stature), but there’s nothing else that implies who Ellie is outside of this. That the film never seems to explain (a) where the family moved from, (b) why the parents moved to “keep the kids a better life” (better life than what?), and (c) how the move is significant since the kids didn’t switch schools, just adds to a certain level of “just go with it” when no reasonable foundation has been created to go with. Heck, an early seen with Ellie and the cellar ends with her storming off, proclaiming how she hates it there and is leaving, but is immediately shown in her room with the aforementioned book. Did she leave the house? Did she have to be coaxed back? I can forgive that the whole family save for Keira seems to have an Irish accent, I can forgive that the parents don’t seem to have done *any* research on the house they bought on what’s little more than a lark, and I can forgive the film for leaning into tropes – but the amount of things that one must go with in order to enjoy the ride piles up too high.
Then there’s the mythology of the house and the malevolent presence within it. There are plenty of stories which co-opt or appropriate religious or supernatural iconography in order to create their spooky tale. To me, the best ones are consistent throughout, well-explained (explicitly or implicitly), and use what is generally accepted in their version of the story. The odd thing is that the initial explanation that Keira discovers would’ve been fine (there are several Hebrew letters throughout the home, specifically over doors) which spell out a creature’s name, offering the first clue to the presence in the home. Within that culture, the use in The Cellar would be more or less acceptable. Except then, as Keira does more research, aspects of Alchemy, Greek mythology, and Christianity all come together in such a manner that makes zero sense. To offer some general perspective, while the Jewish faith has demons, there is no Devil, no Satan, no Lucifer as depicted in the New Testament. There’s also magic or mysticism within the Jewish faith, wherein there’s a belief that the letters possess a certain power. If Muldowney had used this alongside the mathematics which get introduced, I could’ve run with that as it would lean on some Kabbalistic teachings. Except it doesn’t and, instead, places these Hebrew letters alongside other iconography where it doesn’t belong. If one isn’t aware of the separation between the faiths and cultures represented, what Muldowney presents is little more than a stepping stool to offer an explanation for the force at play. Except, I am aware and the explanation provided doesn’t make much sense when given the proper context.
For the majority of the film, I was in it. That tingle on the back of my neck lingering like an unwanted guest as more than a few surprises put me on edge. As a parent, I also understand the strange fear (as one child slept soundly and the other was being rocked while I watched the film) that one day something might happen and my children would disappear. Not in an age-appropriate, social custom way, but in an unforeseen horror way. But if you’re going to use aspects of a culture to create the basis for your supernatural entity, details matter and, from that point on, there was nothing terror-inducing about this science-meets-religion horror story. Perhaps with a different background on my part, I would’ve found where the narrative led more evocative or profound, but, instead, it just seemed like another thing to be tossed against the wall to see if it stuck, undermining all the good the concept provided. In that regard, if you dig supernatural horror with a religious bend, check out The Vigil. That’s not only based in Jewish lore, but nails the details to a tee.
In theaters and streaming on Shudder April 15th, 2022.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Saturday, March 12th, Screening @ 9:15p CT, Alamo Lamar E
*Sunday, March 13th, On-line Screening @ 9a CT
*Monday, March 15th, Screening @ 5:00p CT, Stateside Theatre
*Wednesday, March 16th, Screening @ 6:15p CT, Alamo Lamar A
For more information, head to the official SXSW webpage.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.