March 14, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Brendan Muldowney
Culture Representation: Taking place in Ireland, the horror film “The Cellar” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A married couple and their two children move into a house that has a history of being haunted and where previous residents have mysteriously disappeared.
Culture Audience: “The Cellar” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic horror movies that don’t do anything truly unique.
“The Cellar” succeeds in creating a spooky atmosphere, but it fails to rise above countless other haunted house stories, because of the movie’s weak screenplay, mediocre acting and dull pacing. “The Cellar” is too generic to be a memorable horror film. There are so many overused concepts in “The Cellar” that are in better haunted house movies, you can really do a checklist of all the ideas that are recycled in “The Cellar.”
Written and directed by Brendan Muldowney, “The Cellar” is based on his short film “The Ten Steps.” It’s yet another story about a family moving into a house with very dark secrets that the family won’t discover until it’s too late. And the people living in the house stay much longer than most people would in real life, just so the terror in the movie can be stretched out in repetitive scenes. “The Cellar” had its world premiere on the same date at the 2022 editions of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival and FrightFest Glasgow.
The family at the center of “The Cellar” are spouses Keira Woods (played by Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian Woods (played by Eoin Macken) and their children Ellie Woods (played by Abby Fitz) and Steven Woods (played by Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady). Ellie, who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is a stereotypical pouty teen. Her idea of rebelling is reading books on anarchy and getting an ankle tattoo of the anarchy symbol. Steven, who’s about 10 or 11 years old, is a stereotypical adorable tyke with the expected wide-eyed, open-mouthed, shocked reactions when the terror in the house begins to happen.
The Woods family’s new home is a drab and shabby mansion in an unnamed city in Ireland. (The movie was actually filmed on location in Roscommon, Ireland.) And as haunted houses typically are in horror movies, this house is in an isolated wooded area. The family members are all natives of Ireland, except for Keira, who’s either Canadian or American. (Cuthbert is Canadian in real life.)
“The Cellar” opens with the Woods family’s first day and night in the house. Brian and Steven are already there, while Keira and Ellie arrive separately by car. Ellie is already sulking because she didn’t want to move away from her friends. Upon seeing the house for the first time, Ellie says, “Holy shit. It’s so ugly!”
Why is this the first time that Ellie is seeing this house? It’s because Brian and Keira bought the house at an extremely low price at an auction. And they later find out the hard way that this bargain was too good to be true. And yes, “The Cellar” is another haunted house movie where the new residents didn’t bother to find out any background information about the house before buying it. The house still has furnishings and decorations left behind by the previous owner.
“The Cellar” doesn’t waste any time in showing that the house’s cellar is a place where sinister things happen. Within minutes of being in the house for the first time, Ellie goes in the cellar and declares to Keira, who’s near the door: “It’s filthy!” Keira replies, “I like to think of it as character.” And sure enough, Ellie mysteriously gets locked in the cellar, she freaks out, and then manages to escape. “I’m not staying in this house!” Ellie wails.
But of course, Ellie does stay in the house. After all, where else is she going to go in a hackneyed horror movie? All of the house’s rooms are predictably dark, as if everyone who’s lived there couldn’t be bothered to get a proper lamp or lighting that can illuminate more than certain corners of a room.
Ellie gets even more irritated with her parents when she finds out she has to look after Steven like a babysitter on their first night in the house. That’s because Keira and Brian, who are independent TV producers, have to work late because of an important pitch meeting related to their business. Keira tells Ellie that they need to sell this pitch in order for the family to financially survive.
Meanwhile, back in the mansion that doesn’t know the meaning of full-wattage light bulbs, Ellie is bitterly complaining to her boyfriend on the phone about how she much she dislikes her new home and how it’s unfair that she and Brian have to be in this creepy house alone on their first night there. The boyfriend listens to Ellie gripe about how much she misses him and their friends, and he suggests that he stay with her, even though Ellie’s parents wouldn’t let her do that. Ellie tells him why her parents are working late and says, “I hope they go bust, and we have to sell this house!”
Keira and Brian are independent TV producers who are trying to launch a reality show geared to teenagers called “Natural Selection,” where a young actress will pretend to be a popular vlogger. The pitch meeting takes place in a darkly lit conference room (everything in this movie is darkly lit or in tones of gray), where Keira and Brian are trying to sell this show to TV executives. There are vague mentions about viewer voting based on the physical appearances of the reality show’s cast members. It sounds like a horrible idea.
While Keira and Brian are in this meeting, the electricity suddenly goes out in their house. And what a coincidence: The circuit breaker is in the cellar. Guess who has to be the one to go back to the dreaded cellar to figure out what’s going on with the circuit breaker? Ellie calls Keira to tell her about this electricty outage. Keira excuses herself from the meeting and tells Ellie that she has to be the one to fix the electricity problem by finding the circuit breaker.
Ellie is in a near-panic because she’s scared and reluctant to go back to the cellar. During this phone conversation, Keira instructs Ellie on how to find the circuit breaker in the cellar. And because this movie is filled with as many horror clichés as possible, Ellie is holding a lit candle in the cellar, instead of a more practical flashlight or a smartphone light.
Keira guides Ellie by telling her how many steps she needs to take to get to the circuit breaker. To help calm down Ellie, Keira tells Ellie to count out loud how many steps she’s taking for this walkthrough. During this counting out loud, the phone disconnects. Keira calls back and gets no answer. And when Keira and Brian get home, they find out to their shock that Ellie has disappeared.
A police investigator named Detective Brophy (played by Andrew Bennett) is called to the scene. Keira and Brian aren’t completely alarmed because they tell the detective that Ellie has run away before, and she’ll probably come back in a few days. A small search team looks though the woods to no avail. Keira puts up some missing-person flyers around the area. Meanwhile, “The Cellar” is so poorly written, it never shows Keira or Brian contacting any of Ellie’s friends to find out if these friends have seen her, which would be one of the first things that parents of a missing child would do.
The rest of “The Cellar” gets a bit monotonous, as Keira discovers strange symbols in the house and tries to find out what they all mean. Eventually, the search for Ellie becomes less of a priority in the movie than Keira playing detective to find out the history of the house and to get more information about the previous residents. Ellie contacts the auction manager, who says that the house was previously owned by an elderly woman whom he never met because her attorney was his main contact for the auction.
Because clues are easily given to Keira throughout the movie, she notices that the house has a portrait painting of a university mathematician named John Fetherston, the deceased patriarch of the family that previously lived there. She goes on a quest to find out this family’s background. The answers she gets are utterly predictable.
During this investigation that takes up a lot of Keira’s time, the movie never bothers again to address Keira and Brian’s job predicament that has made them financially desperate. As the days go by, and Ellie remains missing, these parents of a missing child don’t have realistic conversations about this family crisis of a child’s disappearance. It’s why “The Cellar” mishandles the separate terror of a family who has a missing child.
Instead, the movie puts more emphasis on the banal horror trope of a woman being perceived as mentally ill if she suspects what’s going on has to do with the supernatural. Brian questions Keira’s mental health when she divulges some of her theories about why the house might be haunted. Keira also begins to believe that Ellie didn’t run away but that Ellie was abducted—and not necessarily by a human being.
Meanwhile, more stereotypical haunted house hijinks ensue. Doors mysteriously open on their own. Objects get moved with no explanation. Steven gets locked in a room on one occasion, even though no one else appears to be there. The house’s electricity malfunctions again. It all just leads to a conclusion that would only be surprising to people who fell asleep during the movie’s boring middle section. The movie’s last scene is actually one of the few highlights of “The Cellar,” but it’s too little, too late.
One of the more commendable aspects of “The Cellar” is composer Stephen McKeon’s effectively haunting score. This music is sometimes used in over-the-top ways, but it does bring a consistent level of invoking the right moods for each scene. The production design for “The Cellar” is also noteworthy, although nothing in this movie is going to win any awards. The movie’s visual effects are adequate and not gruesome, for viewers who don’t like seeing bloody gore. Still, most of the movie’s “jump scares” just aren’t very scary, and they lack originality.
Unfortunately, the quality of “The Cellar” is lowered by Cuthbert’s stiff performance. She’s never really believable as a mother who’s frantically worried about her missing child. And in scenes where she should be conveying more emotion, Cuthbert just delivers her lines flatly. All the other cast members are in underwritten and underdeveloped roles, with nothing particularly special about their acting. “The Cellar” isn’t the worst horror movie ever, but it doesn’t have the spark, personality or creative imagination to make it stand out from other horror movies with the same ideas.
RLJE Films will release “The Cellar” in select U.S. cinemas on April 15, 2022, the same date that the movie premieres on Shudder.