The Cellar


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Cellar
"Familiar tropes create a certain level of comfort in a horror audience and Muldowney uses that to create a false sense of control." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

There are well crafted horror films out there and there are schlocky ones. There are ones which work hard to present new ideas and ones which focus on character instead. Every now and again one comes along which, no matter where else it might sit on the spectrum, is just terrifying. The Cellar is such a film.

One of the hottest properties at 2022’s SXSW and taking pride of place in the Frightfest strand of the Glasgow Film Festival, where the Irish contribution was strong, this haunted house chiller by Brendan Muldowney will keep you awake at night. It uses old devices with a new vigour and taps straight into primal fears. Being alone. Being in the dark. Discovering that your children are in danger. If none of those get you, the existential horror might. Then there’s the intelligence with which the trap is set. This isn’t one of those situations which you can easily think your way out of. It’s a reminder of just how vulnerable we all are.

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It opens conventionally enough. Kiera (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) and their children Ellie (Abby Fitz) and Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) are moving house. Kiera and Brian need more room for a marketing business which is run partly from home, and Ellie is in her teens and resentful and needs more space – though, true to form, she hates their new home as soon as she sets foot in it. Briefly getting trapped on the wrong side of the cellar door doesn’t help. It’s an old building and something about it unsettles her, so she’s distraught when her parents leave her and her brother alone there on the first night because they need to go into town for a meeting.

Kiera is frustrated by Ellie’s behaviour but still feels some sympathy, perhaps remembering how hard it is to be a teenager. When her daughter calls to tell her that the lights have gone out, she excuses herself from the meeting to talk over the phone. The fuse box, of course, is in the cellar. She knows it’s scary but there are just ten steps to go down and then it’s right there. She will talk Ellie through it, one step at a time. It’s the worst decision of her life.

We don’t get to spend much time with Fitz, but she is excellent at conveying fear. It’s the close-ups of her face as she descends those steps which set the tone. One, two, three... The counting motif recurs throughout the film and never loses its ominous quality. Although the other performances are good, it’s what Fitz delivers that stays with us. Kiera’s experience on the other end of the phone involves a different sort of shock. Later, when Ellie can’t be found, Brian tries to reassure Kiera that she’s probably just run away – it wouldn’t be the first time – but Kiera knows in her gut that something is wrong.

Is The Cellar built out of clichés? One can certainly make a case for that; but what marks it out is the quality of what it creates with them. Familiar tropes create a certain level of comfort in a horror audience and Muldowney uses that to create a false sense of control. There’s a certain sense of humour behind it and a reflection on the careless way that people will ignore warning signs when it suits them to do so (arguably a topical theme in 2022). As Kiera goes digging around for answers she learns that there may be significance to the motto above the front door of the house, to the marks above interior doors, to the equation scrawled at the bottom of the cellar steps and its counterpart on an old gramophone recording which, frankly, may as well be in Ancient Sumerian. The trick lies in figuring out how all these things fit together – but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Themes of construction and cognition are central in a film where the legacy of an unseen character – a former colleague of Erwin Schrödinger, so we’re told – weighs heavily. Muldowney also draws delightful parallels between aspects of occult tradition and modern marketing techniques, which hinge on the idea that the human mind, with its inbuilt obsession with pattern recognition, can be overwhelmed and essentially used as a conduit for ideas if they are framed in the right way. On the flip side of this, we learn that Kiera and Brian are beating themselves up over a past failure to recognise online bullying, another form of psychological invasion which was able to seed itself in Ellie without them recognising what was going wrong. There is an implication that not only are they mere dabblers but that systems of thought can be more powerful than the individuals who engage with them.

The Cellar is a film which can be read in many different ways and its eventual conclusions detract from that only at the most literal level. From simple mechanics like a bouncing ball to Stephen McKeon’s gripping score, it’s beautifully crafted, polished, precise, designed to get under your skin. It’s one of the standout horror films of the year.

The Cellar will stream on Shudder from 15 April

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2022
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The Cellar packshot
When her daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house, a woman uncovers dark secrets and a puzzle which keeps drawing her further in.
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Director: Brendan Muldowney

Writer: Brendan Muldowney

Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Eoin Macken, Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady, Abby Fitz, Aaron Monaghan

Year: 2022

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Ireland


Glasgow 2022
SXSW 2022

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