Haunted house movies will never go out of style. Although the title of The Cellar, the latest offering from Irish writer-director Brendan Muldowney (Savage), suggests all the evil is contained to the basement, as one character makes abundantly clear, the whole house is actually rotted to the core. It’s a real shame, because the country expanse Elisha Cuthbert’s overworked Keira and her family move into is a lovely property, filled with history and the kind of secrets her children would have a great time discovering if this were a Nickelodeon kids’ show made for peanuts in the U.K. Thankfully, for us at least, The Cellar is a horror movie, one overflowing with tantalizingly dark mysteries that Muldowney lovingly takes his time unraveling.
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It’s cool to see Cuthbert back in horror after her appearance in the under-loved, early-2000s House of Wax remake, but is she really old enough to have a teenager? Maybe we’re all just getting on a bit. Anyway, Keira’s daughter, Ellie (Abby Fitz, impressive in her feature debut), isn’t happy they have to move to this isolated abode, regardless of how much its gothic trappings should reasonably appeal to a grumpy alt kid like her. Ellie immediately cops that something is up – to be fair, the house is ominous enough as is, but it must’ve been a steal and besides, millennials aren’t too choosy nowadays regardless – but Keira dismisses her concerns as the protestations of a moody teenager.
However, after a doomed venture into the cellar itself, Ellie goes missing, which leaves Keira a nervous wreck as she immediately blames herself for what happened. Although Ellie has run away before, this time feels different, not least because her mother was on the phone with her when the teenager seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. After the cops come up short, Keira takes matters into her own hands and devotes herself to figuring out exactly what’s going on with their mysterious new home, even as husband Brian (Eoin Macken) and son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady, also making his feature debut) drift further away from her.
The Cellar boasts a simple enough premise but what Muldowney does with it cannot be overstated. The writer-director carefully drip-feeds information to Keira as well as us, with each new revelation complicating matters further. Occult fans and goths alike will be nerding out over the many references to well-established folklore and mythical creatures, but Muldowney wisely waits until the film’s final act to fully unleash the beast, as it were. It’s all wonderfully done, even for a horror fan who’s seen more than enough of these things to last a lifetime. Discussing the particulars to any extent would spoil the surprise but suffice to say Muldowney sticks the landing and then some.
It helps enormously that he’s cultivated a discomfiting atmosphere of impending dread even before anything remotely spooky happens, powered by committed performances from the small cast. Fitz acts scared especially well, while Cuthbert, when she eventually takes center-stage, is utterly believable as the tortured mom left behind, desperately trying to keep it all together even as everything she thinks she knows falls apart around her. The location is great too, though Irish viewers may wonder whether the featured home is a recovered CAB property, with Muldowney making full use of every twisting corridor, every dark corner, and of course the seemingly endless stairs that lead into the suffocating darkness of the basement.
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The filmmakers play with shadows throughout, first when Ellie senses a presence coming up the steps behind her, and later when Steven is down in the cellar, with the shot held just a second long enough for us to realize there’s something lurking in the corner. This moment, in particular, is brilliantly executed and blood-curdling in its quiet intensity. The shot is hard to shake, and it also reaffirms that we don’t need to see much of anything to be scared. Moreover, when the big reveal does come, it doesn’t disappoint, but they don’t overdo it either. Crucially, The Cellar demonstrates what so much of modern horror gets wrong about scaring audiences, by refusing to rely on jump scares. It’s an intense, creepy, utterly foreboding watch but Muldowney doesn’t offer respite where we’re expecting. The timing is deliberately off, which makes the film devilishly unpredictable.
Even the classic keyhole gag, which works like gangbusters even though we know, by now, what’s coming, isn’t presented as we’d anticipate it to. The film is full of wonderful surprises like this, including the physical representation of a parallel dimension, which is incredibly tactile, evocative, and wholly unexpected given how much of the action is set within the house itself. The frustration of missing persons cases is also dealt with in a deft and humanistic manner, through Cuthbert’s distraught mother. The police aren’t painted as villains necessarily, but their ineffectiveness is painfully evident. Thankfully, Keira isn’t your typical dumb protagonist – when she makes a horrifying discovery in the basement, she calls the cops immediately (not that it helps of course).
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The Cellar is a massive achievement, particularly for Irish horror, which tends to be a bit lacking even when everybody’s hearts are in the right places. Muldowney shows real flair for establishing a scary atmosphere without feeling the need to overplay his hand, the camera crawling along the floor and lingering on seemingly innocuous dark spaces until we start questioning what we’re looking at, Blair Witch style. Considering how many disparate elements are at play here, it’s especially impressive his movie manages to hold it all together right up until its shocking final moments. Much of that is thanks to Cuthbert, who’s superb in the lead role, as well as the lovely cinematography by Tom Comerford – which makes Ireland look dark and otherworldly but not grim, a crucial difference many filmmakers fail to grasp – and the eerie, doom-laden score.
Most pertinently, though, The Cellar’s central mystery is knotty and utterly captivating, sucking you in until it’s too late to get away. It’s genuinely difficult to work out what’s going on, which only makes Keira’s predicament more gripping. In a world of cheap jump scares and terrible CGI apparitions, Muldowney’s film is a handsomely crafted, and consistently blood-chilling reminder of what an old-school horror story can really achieve, when given the room to breathe. A must-watch all round.
Catch The Cellar in theaters and streaming on Shudder from April 15, 2022
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Brendan Muldowney
Writer(s): Brendan Muldowney
Stars: Elisha Cuthbert, Eoin Macken, Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady, Abby Fitz
Release date: April 15, 2022
Run Time: 94 minutes