I could probably go on-and-on about what I like about them, but – generally speaking – it all essentially boils down to one key element: in my estimation, a really good haunted house only truly dabbles in Horror. Blood streaming from the walls will only get me all up in arms if its done both creatively and purposefully; and too many storytellers just think you can throw one bizarre sequence after enough to keep your audiences’ blood pressure up. That’s wrong – at least, with me it is – because it’s the psychological aspect that frightens me more than anything else.
I must be forced to ask myself – on more than one occasion in a single viewing – just what in the Holy Hell is going on here?
That’s what genuinely tickles me. It’s Horror – only in that it’s marginally horrific – but more often than not it’s the idea these filmed exercises prick up in my subconscious. It might be novel or inventive, but it must pull me intellectually into the flick. It has to make my brain go in different directions, forcing me to cognitively examine this puzzle (much like its players do), egging me on to try to figure out what spectral entity could be lurking in the dark behind all of this … and hoping (against hope) that there’s a means to bring it all to an end.
Yeah, ghosts are cool. Sure, demons bring something fun to the party. But I need to be challenged to put it all together: otherwise, it’s a fruitless experience.
2022’s The Cellar has a lot of the right elements, so much so that I’m kinda/sorta surprised I didn’t hear more about it during its original run through theaters. Then I remember that my particular thirst for the classic haunted house story isn’t what mainstream audiences generally gravitate toward – I don’t think most folks go in for cerebral calisthenics, not so much as they do jump scares, dripping blood, and furniture and appliances coming to life – and, perhaps, I’m not so surprised. Its script makes you think about the pieces a bit too much … and thought has a way of grinding some movement to a halt.
Plus … who really wants to live in a world where event spectral entities are ruled by math?
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“After Keira Woods’ daughter mysteriously vanishes in the cellar of their new house, she discovers there is an ancient and powerful entity controlling their home. She must face the ultimate evil or risk losing her family’s souls forever.”
For my tastes, 1980’s The Changeling has one of filmdom’s best fright sequences. It doesn’t involve blood. It doesn’t involve gore. It’s the kind of scene that really only hints at the powers of the supernatural and does so in a way that makes you think about what’s truly possible.
George C. Scott plays a man who has tragically lost his wife and daughter in the picture, and what matters most to the pivotal scene in this bouncing ball his little girl used to play with. One night while he’s consoling himself with quiet, the ball simply comes bouncing down the master staircase all on its own. (FYI: he thought he’d had it tucked away in this little chest of mementos.) Distraught over seeing it again, he drives to the city and drops the ball into the drink far below. When he returns home and stands inside at the front door, what is it that greets him but that same bouncing ball coming to rest yet again at the base of the stairs … this time soaking wet?
These are the questions that wrap viewers up in smart tales of haunted houses. This is a film without bloodshed, nor is it one resplendent with a bunch of brilliant colors and pyrotechnic displays. Candlelight flickers and abacus nubs that move all by themselves is what awaits anyone who ventures into these corners; thus, the tale requires a modicum of patience before some strategic reveals legitimately point in the direction of a past physics genius – the previous owner – and what his true secondary pursuits may have been.
As a consequence – that this one isn’t as easily deciphered the way some flicks are – I suspect audiences will look poorly upon what few dark delights are in these 90+ minutes. They’re a bit imperfect – the final reel’s descent is a bit laughable if you haven’t truly bought into the possibilities the story posits – but I found them plausible … except for one moment that relies on a bit too much convenience. (No, I won’t spoil it, but you may know it when you see it.)
Performances are good, at best. Elisha Cuthbert is the known commodity here; and I’ve never quite gotten over seeing her a young ‘Kim Bauer’ from Fox TV’s exceptional action series 24. She handles much of what she’s tasked with here, though the visible emotional attachment to her children never quite rang true with me. Her husband Brian (Eoin Macken) is never given enough to do as a partner and peer, seeming a bit too disinterested in the lives of his family as he is the future of their private business. Aaron Monaghan (as ‘Dr. Fournet’) doesn’t appear until the second half; he’s very good as the academic who might hold some keys to understanding the central mysteries. Quirky and a bit eccentric, it’s an all-too-slim supporting role that deserved a bit more to do as it’s his speeches that help give the material a life beyond the scripted words. Both Cuthbert and Macken were just too reserved – my two cents – so more of that quirky edge might’ve done wonders for a different completed project.
Still, if you like legitimate haunted house stories – the kinds I’ve described above – then I’d offer that The Cellar is a trip worth taking. Albeit a bit slow – and requiring a pretty bit suspension of disbelief for where it all takes you – there’s a brief hint of freshness that just might send a chill up your spine and have you looking at every corner of the next old house you visit for like-minded signs.
Besides: if anyone ever told you math couldn’t kill you, this film proves them wrong. Definitively.
Math. It’s Satan’s business.
The Cellar (2022) was produced by Fís Éireann / Screen Ireland, Epic Pictures Group, and a handful of other participants. (If those matters interest you, then you can find the full listing of companies on IMDB.com.) DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated via RLJE Films. As for the technical specifications? The flick looks and sounds fabulous from start-to-finish; for some reason, I found the audio a bit ‘wonky’ in one sequence – I ended up figuring out it was a weird sound effect (this was clarified by the subtitle). Lastly, if you’re looking for special features, then you’re in for a good treat: along with cast and crew interviews, there’s a director’s commentary track, a featurette involving the visual effects (meh), and a short film (from director Muldowney) which clearly serves as the picture’s grounding inspiration. Well done, folks! That’s actually a nice collection for fans.
Recommended. Hey, storytellers? You needn’t have gone to all this trouble to teach mankind about the dangers of math. High school calculus teachers have been doing that for years. Still, The Cellar has a nice vibe to it, despite being a tad long and a bit unfocused in its second half. Performances work – though I expected a bit more from Cuthbert in the emoting department – and occasional the film feels like a welcome reinvigoration of the whole haunted house idea. I’m just not sure there was enough legitimate thrills for this one to – ahem – add up (wink wink) to more than a passing flirtation.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJE Films and Shudder provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of The Cellar (2022) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.