2.5 out of 5 stars

The foundations of The Cellar lie in Brendan Muldowney’s 10-minute short The Ten Steps (2004), built around a single, terrifically simple and chilling idea: a teenage girl, left babysitting in her family’s new house while her parents are at a business meeting, descends nervously into the cellar to find the fuse box after the lights go out… while on the phone, her parents try to calm her down by encouraging her to count the steps, one to ten…

Pretty much exactly the same scene, with the same setup, appears in Muldowney’s latest feature, which brings across the Ten Steps’ composer, cinematographer, and editor. And even if you’ll probably guess what happens after step ten, it’s a wonderfully compelling passage again, illustrating how the best horror so often comes not from the garish or the gory but from something just being wrong.

Unfortunately, The Cellar begins more successfully than it ends, as this scene arrives only a quarter of an hour in, and the film never develops from its initial promise. The concept of the short, pared down to three elements (steps, the dark unknown, counting) clearly isn’t enough to stretch to feature-length, and so almost everything after this scene is essentially just an explanation of it. The Cellar never reaches the same heights of tension again.

Elisha (Keira Woods) and her husband Brian (Eoin Macken), entrepreneurs in what looks like a bandwagon-jumping internet marketing business, buy Xaos House cheap at auction—a large, rather ugly grey pile somewhere in rural Ireland—and relocate there with their sulky teenage daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) and younger son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady).

Ellie’s upset at having to move away from her friends, but things like a ram’s skull hidden in a cupboard and an old gramophone record of a man’s voice apparently reading out mathematical symbols, as well as lots of satisfyingly creepy shots looking down the steps into that cellar, make it clear that social inconvenience is going to be the least of her problems!

Before long, the lights are indeed mysteriously flickering and a strange breeze blowing, mum and dad are out at their meeting, the power finally goes, and Ellie must make that aforementioned descent into the cellar which Muldowney handled so well in his short. Here, again, he takes his time with the scene and it grows steadily in intensity, aided by a sense from Ellie’s facial expression that she’s seeing something we’re not.

After Ellie disappears into the cellar, and her mother starts looking for her, we again get the feeling sometimes that mum knows or sees something unmentioned. But we also now get the feeling that just like Elisha in her quest for her missing daughter, Muldowney’s screenplay is persevering in searching for something without being completely sure where to find it.

There’s much that’s effective here, ranging from single shots (disturbing wall paintings of screaming faces, or perhaps skulls, found in the cellar), to the confined and lonely ambience that pervades the film—consisting mostly of dark house interiors with few people or other signs of life, even when it does move further afield to Steven’s school or the local police station. This atmosphere may have been necessitated by budget but it does give The Cellar helpful unity.

The Cellar doesn’t entirely escape cliché. There’s an abacus that moves on its own, and Stephen McKeon’s excessive music score features what the subtitles call “sinister choral” (by now so overused it’s become banal, even if the jumbled-up cries of the damned at least have some relevance here). A few plot elements are difficult to completely credit—Elisha might suspect the supernatural too quickly, for example, and the explicatory character of Dr Fournet (Aaron Monaghan) is faintly ludicrous—while others, like Brian’s scepticism, are predictable.

On the plus side, there are no creepy dolls! More importantly, while this is a horror story about a house, it’s refreshingly not a ghost story (Hebrew glyphs carved around the house turn out to spell “Leviathan”), and it has at least the potential for a literary depth which many genre exercises lack. There are distinct echoes of H.P Lovecraft (an old woman with a past connection to the house warns of “something ancient, something that has been known by many names”), while Muldowney’s original short was inspired by Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), which was itself based on Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House. You don’t get a finer horror pedigree than that.

Again, however, there seems to have been uncertainty in where to take all these influences. Muldowney’s said that at one point he considered populating the film with multiple monsters—“crows and giant spiders”, in the manner of Frank Darabon’t Stephen King adaptation The Mist (2007)—and having only children as the main characters, though what we do get is nothing like that.

And even in the more conventional and modest movie he made, the ending is a jumble: first resorting to the usual running around in the dark stalked by something monstrous, then introducing a quite unexpected (and in itself imaginative and powerful) vision of something very different, then following it all up with a final shot that seems laden with meaning, but doesn’t truly make sense—is the family in Hell? Purgatory? Should we read The Cellar as The Others (2001)? But that doesn’t entirely stack up either.

Competently acted and more than competently helmed by Muldowney, The Cellar has a strong central idea giving rise to one masterful and memorable horror scene, but it simply can’t sustain that promise, and goes in too many directions afterwards without managing to evoke anything like that early chill again.

It’s not a bad film, just a disappointing one. And given the recent mini-boom in Irish horror—exemplified by movies like The Hole in the Ground (2020), also scored by McKeon, or The Cured (2017), high hopes for this are reasonable. As it is, the short that inspired it is decidedly superior.

IRELAND | 2022 | 94 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Brendan Muldowney.
Elisha Cuthbert, Eoin Macken, Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady & Abby Fitz.