A haunted house/supernatural thriller that puts the “slow” in “slow-burn”
There’s a key, nay fundamental, lesson at the center of writer-director Brendan Muldowney’s (Pilgrimage, Love Eternal, Savage) latest feature-length film, The Cellar: Always do your due diligence when purchasing a county manor somewhere in the wilds of Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland (“20 minutes from somewhere by car”). If you can purchase said country manor for “next to nothing” at an auction from an unknown seller, however, something, possibly something terrible and/or ancient, dwells there and chances are, you and your family, like the family before them whose paintings still adorn the walls of the half-furnished country manor, will vanish, never to be seen or heard from again, their fates unresolved, all but guaranteeing a new, unsuspecting family to take up domicile in the country manor in the near or distant future.
But in the cramped, limited universe of The Cellar, supernatural/folk horror fiction and/or films don’t exist because if they did, the four-member Woods family, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert, House of Wax, 24), her husband Brian (Eoin Macken), and their two variously accented children, Ellie (Abby Fitz), a sullen, surly teen, and Steven (Dillon Fitzmaurice Brady), a bratty, obnoxious preteen, would have fled at the first or second sign of a supernatural presence making itself felt in their “too-good-to-be-true” country manor, a manor purchased through earnings derived from the top-flight marketing firm Keira and Brian own just a 20-minute drive from their new home.
Working in broad, borderline caricatured strokes, Muldowney introduces Keira and Brian as loving, if distracted, parents, obsessed with providing the best material comforts money can purchase while predictably ignoring the emotional needs of their children. While Keira and Brian work on a high-end marketing campaign aimed at teens in Ellie’s age range for a faceless, profit-driven corporation, presumably due to their ability to understand the needs and wants of teen girls (the better to sell them the company’s unspecified products), ironically Keira and Ellie can barely exchange the bland, familiar pleasantries need for social cohesion without their conversation descending into inter-generational conflict, painful accusations, and slammed doors.
Taken at face value, Ellie’s rebellion takes the seemingly sincere form of anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism, but before Ellie can present her dissertation on the social, cultural, and economic ills of modern society, she disappears the first night at the new home, the victim of the country manor’s apparent insatiable need to consume the souls of the new inhabitants (or something along those lines). And it’s happened before, though Keira and Brian don’t learn about their new home’s enigmatic history until Ellie disappears and the police, as useless here as in other horror films dating back a century, shoulder shrug their way permanently out of the frame, never to be seen or discussed again.
Ellie’s mysterious disappearance moments after descending the cellar’s steps to find the circuit breaker is enough, of course, to give the guilt-ridden Keira the necessary motivation to set aside the most rational explanation (Ellie ran away) for a supernatural one of the “ancient evil” kind. That, in turn, leads to repetitive scenes involving Keira googling the meaning behind the symbols (Hebrew) carved above every door in the house, the house’s previous owner, a onetime respected mathematician who became obsessed with alchemy and the supernatural, and a meet-up with a nearby university with a Dr. Exposition (Aaron Monaghan) eager to drop a few words of familiar wisdom in answer to Keira’s obvious questions.
Borrowing heavily from horror standouts dating back more than half a century (everything from The Devil Rides Out to The Sentinel, The Amityville Horror, The Beyond, and Poltergeist), The Cellar never shakes off the feeling of “been there, been scared by that” beat in and beat out. That sense of deja vu means even casual horror fans will be five to ten steps ahead of Keira as she somewhat urgently looks for the answers behind Ellie’s disappearance and whether, through some act of motherly love and/or contrition, she can save Ellie from a fate equivalent to the Christian notion of purgatory. The ultimate answers, along with a handful of set pieces ranging from the truly eerie (Ellie’s disappearance, the unseen presence scratching at the cellar door) to the downright soporific (the revelation of the demon’s visage, the ease in which Keira escapes multiple times) may not surprise, but at least Muldowney doesn’t go for the easy, audience-pleasing ending.
The Cellar is available to stream via Shudder.