Filmed on location in Ireland, The Cellar tells the story of the Woods family who move into a creepy old house with a secret history, odd architectural accents, and a cellar that may lead directly to hell. Told mostly from the perspective of American mother Keira Woods (Elisha Cuthbert), the film takes its time getting to know the dynamic of the family (mother and daughter Ellie, played by Abby Fitz, do not get along, for starters), and it doesn’t take long for Keira to notice strange symbols over all of the doors in the house. One night Ellie is home babysitting younger brother Steven (Dillon Fitzmaurice Brady) when the power goes out and she must venture into the cellar to find the fuse box. She calls her mother for courage and Keira coaxes Ellie down the stairs, counting the number of stairs with her. But while there are only 10 stairs, on the phone, Ellie counts far beyond that number and has gone missing by the time her parents get home.
The sequence on the stairs is genuinely scary, and The Cellar doesn’t want for similarly creepy sequences. The problem with the film is that the characters are so thinly drawn that we barely worry about them being in danger even when they clearly are. Keira is the person we spend the most time with, but even she doesn’t warrant our sympathy as she begins the search for her daughter, both with the police’s help and on her own as she investigates the symbols in her house and a mathematical formula she finds carved into the stone floor at the bottom of the cellar stairs. She begins digging into the unsettling history of the house, finding out that the previous owners also vanished save one daughter who is now a nearly mute elderly woman.
I like the idea that math plays a significant role in the house’s dark and ancient past, and that the professor who lived there found a powerful connection between science and the supernatural. And while that may be fascinating stuff, writer/director Brendan Muldowney doesn’t quite know how to connect these seemingly dissimilar practices into a coherent and scary plot. To make matters worse, Keira’s husband Brian (Eoin Macken) is a bit of a dud as a character. He doesn’t believe his wife’s theories about the evil in the house, and by the time he’s finally convinced, it’s too late to do anything about it except be a pawn of whatever is making their life unbearable.
There are a couple of interesting and surprising visuals that crop up in the final act of The Cellar, but for the most part, the film is little more than a bunch of people creeping around attempting to figure out what is real, what isn’t, and why we should care either way. Even when the evil entity makes its presence more explicitly known, it feels like the filmmakers couldn’t afford actual horrifying makeup effects, so we get shadows and sound effects. That can be highly effective in many cases, but here it feels like taking the cheap way out rather blatantly. It’s a beautifully shot film, even though a lot of it takes place in darkness. Better than many no-budget horror outings, but still something of a letdown.
The film is now playing theatrically and streaming on Shudder.
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