There’s nothing quite like a creepy old house for atmosphere. Even better when it’s a stately pile — a relic of the gilded age whose halls were once filled with scurrying servants and aloof aristocracy. They were the engines of their own destruction, but what pleasant ruins they have left behind.
The scene of The Cellar, from writer/director Brendan Muldowney, isn’t on the scale of a Victorian-era English country home from Henry James, or the mansion from The Changeling, but it is a house with ceilings high enough for a game of pickup basketball, and wood molding everywhere. At some time in the last century, a house like this — one built with care and craftsmanship — became a place that has a sense of unease about it. Perhaps we’ve gotten too used to the plain boxes that accompanied the post-WW2 population explosion. Or, perhaps, we see a once-grand residence on its downward slope and the weight of years and events that happened there is too much to consider. So much life passed through there, and so long ago, that an old house is a reminder of death. No matter. I’d live in a place like this film’s Fetherston House in a heartbeat (interiors and exteriors were shot at a house in Roscommon, Ireland).
In this film, the new residents of the house are Keira and Brian Woods (Elisha Cuthbert and Eoin Macken), and their two children, teenaged Ellie and young Steven (Abby Fitz and Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady). The Woods couple picked up the house at auction after the elderly Rose Fetherston (Marie Mullen) decided to move into a retirement home.
The house had been built and fitted out by John Fetherston in the late 1930s. He was a mathematician at the local university, but became obsessed with the occult. The house he built has mysterious markings scattered throughout and a strange mathematic equation carved into the floor of the basement. Experienced horror fans will recognize this as the kind of house characters should avoid.
Not five minutes after first entering the home, Ellie finds herself locked in the basement with something creeping up the steps towards her. When she’s freed she declares she won’t be staying in the house, as if teens have any real say over something like that.
Ellie is at the stage of her life when she’s at war with her mother. Nothing nice ever comes out of her mouth, and nothing is ever good enough for her. She’s pouty and sarcastic. Fitz plays her perfectly.
The first night in the house, Brian and Keira have to work late, leaving Ellie and Steven at home. What follows is an almost shot-for-shot remake of Muldowney’s horror short from 2004, The Ten Steps. I won’t spoil this scene, as it’s quite effective (as is the original short film). Just know that Ellie disappears, and Keira and Brian are frantic to find her when they return home. From here, the film is all original story — a slow burn to a frantic final act, one filled with curious decisions on Keira’s part, and a whole lot of familiar horror tropes.
Keira is onboard early with the idea that her daughter’s disappearance has something to do with the supernatural, while Brian, as is common in a film like this, remains the skeptic until the final act. Keira researches the house, gathers evidence, and makes a strong case that the old mathematician who owned the house built it as a gateway to hell, or some other dimension. Ellie is not the first person associated with the house to go missing. Keira is understandably horrified at where she might be.
There are mixed feelings amongst professional and amateur critics alike on which part of the film works best — the first two-thirds or the final act. It depends on one’s patience, and also on one’s response to setting and atmosphere. Yes, not a lot happens before the climax, but I believe Muldowney’s storytelling was best, here. In a haunted house flick, which is what this is, the unseen is more tense and frightening than the finale, which is usually all spectacle. There may not have been a rush of things flying past the eyes in this buildup, but Muldowney made me feel deep unease in many places. Scaring veteran horror movie watchers is no easy feat, and can’t be dismissed because of one’s thoughts about pace.
As noted above, Fitz played her part as the moody teen to perfection. She also didn’t have much to do after the first act, which is unfortunate. Brady was a typical child actor. Cuthbert and Macken were the two leads, and they did their jobs well enough. They didn’t have much chemistry between them, however, nor did they ever seem like real people, especially after seeing the work of Gerard Lee and Paula Lee as the parents in the short film. The characters have been glammed up just a touch too much for this expanded production.
Viewers will have to sit through some horror eye-rollers here and there, but The Cellar is a fine film to watch for this scariest of months. It’s not a masterpiece, but is very separate from the chaff of other haunted house films. I also recommend watching the original short film, which is on YouTube as of this writing. In fact, every horror fan should watch more short horror. They tend to pack a punch, having been stripped of the filler necessary to stretch out an idea to feature length.