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SXSW 2022 ‘The Cellar’ Review: Not Worth the Darkness

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The horror film The Cellar, penned and directed by Brendon Muldowney and starring Elisha Cuthbert, is dark. Literally. No matter how dim you make your surroundings, how much you brighten the screen of whatever device you’re streaming the flick on, it’s difficult to see the haunted house at the core of this film for the shadows that lurk within it. This perhaps is all for the best, because The Cellar is a disappointment: a middling work of horror that might better be placed in the early aughts, with its boon of films about mothers and haunted houses, than in 2022. The Cellar re-treads familiar ground without bringing anything new or compelling to the table, ultimately leaving us craving those films whose shades it aspires to evoke.

Cuthbert plays Keira Woods, who alongside her husband Brian (Eoin Macken), their teenaged daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) and young son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady), move into a giant home in the Irish countryside. Keira and Brian work together in public relations and seem to be away from home often, while Ellie is an angsty teenager who has a tough time at school and at home, disliking her mother for reasons that aren’t fully fleshed out. The horror elements begin the first night the family is to spend in their new home, when Keira and Brian are called to work in the dead of night for an emergency PR meeting; after a power outage, Ellie journeys into the cellar to locate the fuse box at her mother’s behest, who, on the phone with Ellie, calms the frightened girl. But as Ellie descends deeper into the bowels of the cellar, her voice blanches, grows eerily steadier with every step until she finally stops speaking. When Ellie disappears, Keira is convinced there is an evil presence in the house that swallowed up her daughter, and she sets out to find out what it could be. 

This movie might have been stronger if certain of its elements were more thoroughly thought through with an eye to scare viewers rather than bore. For starters, the mystery of the house is anchored in math. More precisely, the house used to be owned and was constructed by a mathematician whose family vanished in the way Ellie does. The math here is tied to satanism, but not in an immediately exciting 666-way, rather in a more academic way, one that most audiences might not understand enough to be frightened by it. The effect of the film’s turgidity is that its horrific heft is lost and it’s difficult to care much about the evil the Woods are tormented by, as it is incomprehensible, hidden behind sanitary and clean numbers, equations. The evil in this film is not living and breathing and pulsating in the way that the evil in Hellraiser roils, which could be The Cellar’s ideological ancestor. 

The film posits that the haunted house is a curiosity box, much akin to Lemarchand’s box. Whereas in Hellraiser Frank Cotton pokes and prods Lemarchand’s puzzle box to open the door to the viscerally-terrifying and grotesque Cenobites, who glisten with blood and scar tissue, and who grant Frank all his sadomasochistic wishes, in The Cellar, the wish-granting, nefarious forces that live within the dimension beyond our own are summoned onto our earthly plane by counting, or by descending into the cellar as one counts, the ritual completed when one lands finally on the complex mathematical equation carved into the flagstone at the base of the staircase. The mathematician who built the home did so painstakingly and with care and it seems that the forces he summoned have stuck around for longer than he ever wanted them to, coming now to torment the Woods. 

In comparison to the deliciously vile evil throbbing at the heart of Hellraiser, the evil in The Cellar is dusty as to make you cough. Brittle, this evil lacks a life force to the deadening extent that it’s not strong enough to disarticulate itself from the darkness that floods the house. How can one be afraid in face of an evil as impotent, literally invisible as this? After all, what frightens us the most about the monsters like the Cenobites or others from our most beloved horrors is their uncanniness, how much like us they are, the best horrors show us how easy it is for us to become these wretched, mortifying monsters. But there is a stultifying dryness at the heart of The Cellar that is too weak to scare, and that furthermore is carried over to the Woods family itself.

Cuthbert does a decent job at portraying Keira, but Keira does not appear to be a well-developed character; none of the Woods are. Keira, Brian, Steven, and Ellie can scan as stock characters, as “Mother,” “Father,” “Son,” and “Daughter,” with no unique personality written into them. It’s taken for granted that these characters make up a family, with very little in their dialogue and behavior to show that any one of them really cares for the other. Even before Ellie disappears, there is very little warmth between any of the family members, especially between husband and wife – nobody touches, holds hands, hugs. At one point in the film Keira hears Steven counting and worried that he might disappear in the way Ellie did, Keira rushes into the room he is in. But when she gets to him, when she sees that he is safe, still corporeal, she keeps herself at a noticeable distance from him, as if respecting his space. Keira doesn’t grab Steven in that primal, maternal way someone like Naomi Watts’ Rachel in The Ring grabs her son after he’s watched the cursed videotape, for example. It could be argued this distance is due to covid-related filming measures, but in other scenes the family comes close together, though still not close enough.  

This lack of warmth is such an alarming aspect of the film that one keeps waiting for a whisper of irony, hoping that this movie is painting these characters as flatly as it can to perhaps make a grander point about something. For example, Brian is wrought as skeptical husband par excellence, to the extent that when Keira says she’s been to a literal professor of physics at a renowned university to get his professional opinion as to what the mathematical equation carved into the floor of their cellar means, Brian tells Keira she’s being delusional. Math, its clean, cold numbers and letters, of all the things on god’s green earth, is the most logical and apparently infallible thing, and surely going to a pro when your own mathematical knowledge is lacking is the most sound-of-mind thing a person can do. Brian’s response seems so absurd one is left waiting for the punchline that never comes — this is what I mean when I say this movie belongs in 2002. 

Individually and ideologically, all the right elements seem to be present within The Cellar, but it lacks a human element to it that is necessary for any horror movie to work, ultimately making for a borderline boring film that strains your eyes as you try to find the evil meant to be lurking within it.

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