The Cellar is far too bogged down in the why of its haunted house conceit, deferring thrills in its dull march to an inevitable conclusion.
Brendan Muldowney’s The Cellar has all the hallmarks of your run-of-the-mill, austere haunted house movie. It features a family with some light problems for a haunting to exacerbate, very creepy stairs to a dark, creepier basement, more overlong and perfectly still shots of ominous doorways than you can count and, worst of all, a misguided commitment to restraint to the point that barely anything happens. But this isn’t a film where portraits fly off walls and ghosts jump out of dark corners, and is instead one with a few light, uneventful scares, like a repeated shot of an abacus slowly moving on its own. Were these scenes sustained, they might still have proven dread-inducing, but spaced out as they are, they only feel like deadening beats on the way to an admittedly more exciting finale.
Keira Woods’ (Elisha Cuthbert) family has moved into a big home they bought for dirt cheap at an auction, further driving a wedge between herself and her anarcho-curious teenage daughter, Ellie (Abby Fitz). Keira works in marketing, projecting images of teenage girls to the public that Ellie thinks are completely false, nevermind that her mother has no time to get to know her as she’s always working. The rift between them is literalized when Ellie disappears in the house’s cellar while on the phone with her mother. For the rest of the film, Keira investigates her daughter’s disappearance and uncovers the truth about her new home. And therein lies the problem: for much of The Cellar, Muldowney is more concerned with explaining why the house is haunted than with actually making the haunting exciting on its own. Outside of the disconnect between Keira and her daughter, he’s plainly uninterested in metaphor too, so the deep dive into “why” is nothing but gibberish to explain the film’s barebones internal logic. What could have been tossed off in an expository scene or two instead becomes a slog of a midsection involving everything from Jewish mysticism and alchemy to quantum physics and advanced mathematics.
All this nonsense is mere setup for the film’s last act, which places the rest of Keira’s family in imminent danger and delivers on showing the evil presence in the cellar at work. It’s patently rote horror movie stuff, but it’s also certainly more effectively frightening than the rest of the film. But when so much has been spent trying to differentiate its horrors in excruciating detail, the final act falling back on largely basic scares is still a disappointment. If The Cellar were less wrapped up in unintelligible minutiae, its bleak ending might have been an impressive swing. But as is, it instead makes the film feel like time wasted, a dull march to an inevitable conclusion.
You can stream Brendan Muldowney’s The Cellar on Shudder beginning on April 15.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.