A strong, spooky idea that can’t quite make the leap to feature-length.
Synopsis: Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house. She soon discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home that she will have to face or risk losing her family’s souls forever.
Writer-director Brendan Muldowney returns to the idea behind his excellent short film The Ten Steps to expand the story, to limited success. Viewers of the original (and brilliantly executed) short will be familiar with the concept – some busy parents head out to a work dinner, leaving their children at home. When the lights go out their teenage daughter has to go into the cellar to fix the issue, guided over the phone to walk the ten steps. The short packs a powerfully creepy punch, so a continuation of that idea may make sense, although the feature-length production highlights that the short’s power lies in both its brevity and lack of explanation.
Focused around the Woods family, The Cellar‘s opening moments play out in much the same way as the short, with sullen teenager Ellie (Abby Fitz) at odds with her parents, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) as well as younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) as they move into their new, suspiciously cheap house. On the first night of the move, Brian and Keira are at a meeting, leaving Ellie to look after Steven. Creepy goings-on in the house ensue and soon Ellie is having to make the scary trip into the cellar, resulting in a disappearance that Keira has to take exceptional measures to resolve.
While Muldowney very clearly has a great sense of what makes something scary and a good grasp on how to bring that to the screen this cannot overcome the fact that this is an 80 minute film built around an idea that makes for a very strong short film punchline. Outside of that punchline, the film is forced into recreating the usual ‘haunted house’ tropes. Internet symbolism research and expositional historians make appearances almost like clockwork. The addition of a mathematically-focused expert does add something not seen as often, but the delivery is just as undynamic and stalls momentum. The Woods parents’ social media company meeting is full of vague references to previous campaigns and ‘going viral’ but fails to establish sufficiently high stakes for them leaving the children alone in a new, unknown house.
The use of light and shadow is very impressive, providing some standout moments of tension and horror. Even as the film often lurches into scenes you have seen previously, they are, undoubtedly well-realised. However, as the film needs to expand further toward its conclusion there is some straining at the seams as the images can’t quite live up to the film’s ambitions, resulting in the mood and atmosphere from all those well-earned scares sadly escaping at the conclusion. This leads to the film ending on a whimper, rather than the bang of the original short.
Elisha Cuthbert’s performance provides the main focus here, solidly selling the concept of a worried, yet determined mother trying to come to terms with her loss and the desire to keep searching into an entirely unknown world. The film affords a few starring segments for Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady’s Steven, under threat from the house perhaps more than anyone. Eoin Macken is just as solid, although he appears more sparingly, allowing Cuthbert to take centre stage as the driving force. This does lead to the family feeling rather more fractured as the film moves on, fitting, given the strain placed upon them.
Some pleasing horror moments and the undeniable shudder that the film’s borrowed set piece brings can’t quite elevate this to the heights of the short it is based on.
2.5 out of 5 stars
The Cellar plays as part of Grimmfest Easter on Friday April 15th at 4pm. Please see the Grimmfest schedule for more information and tickets. The Cellar will also begin streaming on Shudder from April 15th.