Dull in the way it looks, and predictable in the way it unravels, The Cellar (2022) has mysteriously made the cut in the Midnighters section of SXSW 2022, instead of instantly reaching its final destination – the most inaccessible depths of VOD where only the most seasoned genre thrive.
For a while now I’ve been meaning to push myself to review The Cellar (2022) by Brendan Muldowney. It’s an honest insight, and it’s not even the case of writer’s block. Perhaps it’s the overall mundanity of this movie that refrained me from writing. Or the sole fact that The Cellar (2022) evokes so few emotions that writing a review – meaning a creative piece of writing ornamented with one’s perception and feelings – becomes a bore.
Moving to the point though, Muldowney reached for a trope as hackneyed as the haunted house. Such a choice can end up gratifying only if the deeper meaning’s there. Unless the filmmaker extrapolates an original subliminal message from that trope, the theme remains an old chestnut. Take Deadstream (2022), a clever take on the same beaten path for horror movies. Premiering at SXSW 2022 too, Deadstream (2022) follows a fallen-star streamer who goes the extra mile to regain the lost cult status and shuts himself in a creepy manor for one night. While Deadstream (2022) talks about technology and perils of fame, that wild card for The Cellar (2022) could have been the symbolism of wandering into the darkness of your own house, as the titular space would indicate.
In the beginning of the film, a family of four moves into a luxurious manor, despite the moods aren’t “all in favor” of this shift. Days after moving in, Brian Woods (Eion Macken) and Keira Woods (Elisha Cuthbert) leave their children – Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) and Ellie (Abby Fitz) – alone for the night. Expectedly, the consequences are dire. After being lured to the basement level of the mysterious house, Ellie takes a few steps down and then vanishes off the ground. The only trace is a phone call left on Keira’s voicemail.
What happened in the cellar?
Who – or what – took Ellie?
Given the gravity of the situation, the familial bunch acts as if barely caring about the disappearance. Contrary to the expected attitude – that is agonising pain mixed with blaze-with-anger impulsiveness we’ve seen in, let’s say, Hugh Jackman’s impressionable performance in Prisoners (2013) – Keira and Brian are awfully quiescent. The whole family’s conveniently preoccupied with their everyday lives, at the same time pretending that to act worried to their core.
At its most absurd moment, Keira hears her son do the same counting just as Ellie did over the phone – a rather straightforward omen of something fishy going on – but her reaction is basically sending the kid back to minding his own business. Again, that’s the mother of a child that’s gone missing.
Keira isn’t, thankfully, the worst mother of all, and begins her own investigation into Ellie’s case. Once again, the director honors the memory of the early 2000s. A vast majority of horrors made about two decades ago combined scares with far-fetched detective work conducted by mundane characters supported by even more mundane experts, including zany collectors of strange occultic paraphernalia, former exorcists, astrologists, and so on.
Hardly any of the clues found by Keira makes legit sense in The Cellar (2022), while the journey of connecting the dots happens at a snail’s gallop and without any tension. Judging by the jaded look of Elisha Cuthbert for most of the movie, the plot couldn’t sound exciting on paper, and crystallizing it on set only made it a worse experience.
Eventually, Muldowney doesn’t even satisfy the hunger for a proper monster movie – though he indicates such a turn in the second half of the movie. The Cellar (2022) builds anticipation of a beastly being from hell, and yet the whole reveal contorts the plot in the most idiotic way, one that’s both utterly predictable, but also incredibly anti-climatic. A much better strategy for the director would have been to follow the steps of Antlers (2021), which abided in gross-out, visceral violence.
Having no redeeming quality whatsoever, The Cellar (2022) marked one of the lowest points of SXSW 2022, leaving behind only the worst horror of the year so far, Bitch Ass (2022). We might have to wait until Elisha Cuthbert, one of the horror muses of the early 2000s, returns with a proper bang.
The Cellar (2022) is available on Shudder.