Simply put, that’s just plain inaccurate. While the films of Charles Band and his merry band of co-conspirators might occasionally capture the elements of a more traditional exploitation picture, the productions more often than not go in an entirely different thematic direction. There’s more to their stories – and there’s a lot more to most of the pictures’ various performances – than what draws the crowds to something built of action, boobs, and blood; and for far too long I think these efforts have suffered from being so casually dismissed as lesser, direct-to-video fare. Just because a breast is bared doesn’t make it gratuitous, and just because a monster chows on a severed foot doesn’t make it thematically unnecessary. (Yeah, I said what I said, and I’m not sorry.) Despite that defense, I’ll happily concede that some of the projects that didn’t quite echo with audiences have probably been relegated to the exploitation sub-genre because, frankly, they just might not fit in any other category.
Take Cellar Dweller (1987) as today’s example. At first blush, the pic could easily be assigned to Horror (which is its central track), but the truly gruesome moments one expects are both fairly slim and reasonably well spaced out across its 80-something minutes; this means that Horror buffs might be a bit disappointed that there’s so little monster action. While the script boasts a seminal mystery – along with the race to uncover the source of the killings – there isn’t enough of that to make it a proper whodunnit. And the Fantasy theme? Well, again, it’s only used as a construct – as a plot device – so some in the audience might object to calling it that as well.
I suppose – in the final estimation – this uneven amalgamation of ideas and elements might be why it’s as much a cult classic as to why it didn’t quite find mainstream appeal: little too little, little too late.
But there is that very, very, very cool monster to talk about.
(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 film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A comic book artist Whitney Taylor is doomed to repeat history in a most grotesque way when she unleashes a demon after drawing it.”
Monster movies have always fascinated me but probably not for the reason readers expect.
Sure, I’ll admit to getting jazzed about a critter that’s large, menacing, and bares more teeth in one growl that a great white shark does in multiple movies. And, yes, it’s pretty spiffy to watch the thing lumber about, shaking its mighty chest with every screech or swiping its razor-sharp claws across human flesh. And, of course, I get the willies when the thing runs down some unsuspecting victim, picks him or her up over their head, and brutally tears them into multiple pieces thrown about the scene. I am only human, after all, so all of that is wonderful.
But what I like most is the journey of the creature.
In that regard, Dweller fails as a flick because there just isn’t quite enough to the monster’s arc. In fact, we’re really given very little about him/her/it/they in the script from screenwriter Don Mancini. Director John Carl Buechler does what he can to keep the frames spooling, but the characters inserted just don’t have any real connection (or connective tissue with one another) to make this whole affair rise even to the level of a respectable B-Movie. Attempts are made, yes, but they’re just not fetching enough to set the simple premise in motion. Beyond the magical beast, there’s nothing to see here.
Furthermore, the cast is never given enough background to make an audience authentically root for their survival.
While Debrah Farentino makes for a ‘lovely to look at lead,’ her Whitney Taylor never appears passionate enough to any of her ascribed hobbies and/or desires to make me care. The script suggests that she’s long been curious about the legend of what truly happened to the deceased Colin Childress, but she treats so much of her time at the art institute as just another day, just another step on her career. Similarly, the other gathered artists never quite display much interest in their respective sculpting, painting, dancing, etc., and I found it hard to accept that this cultural commune produced performers of any major standing or quality. The late Yvonne De Carlo (of The Munsters fame) turns in some nice moments, but her stern taskmaster fails to muster any real menace, instead coming off as some old eccentric fuddy-duddy who’s fortunate to have been given the job and title in the first place.
Cellar Dweller (1987) was produced by Empire Pictures and Dove Corporation Ltd. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good people at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought the sights-and-sounds to this restoration effort by Arrow to be – well – only pretty good. I noticed an awful lot of grain in quite a few spots; though the creature sequences were all surprisingly crisp, some of the lesser, fill-in scenes – character stuff, mostly – just seemed flat and colorless. I’m not sure, but I suspect this is likely part of an inferior source material.
Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc boasts an all-new commentary by make-up artist Michael Deak hosted by critics Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain; a very informative documentary short exploring the films and career of director Buechler; a separate filmed interview with the aforementioned Deak; and the usual notes, galleries, and trailers typical to this sort of release. As usual, Arrow never disappoints; while the casual film fan might not spend as much time here, I think the diehards are going to be thrilled.
Alas, this one is only Mildly Recommended.
Other than some rather solid creature effects work, there just isn’t all that much in the basement of Cellar Dweller to get all that excited about. It’s a story we’ve seen done before – with creatures magically conjured up out of the imagination to do harm to whoever it crosses paths with – and the performances are all a bit too lukewarm to generate enough heat to get all of this truly percolating. The great Jeffrey Combs is wasted in a set-up performance that, honestly, could’ve been anyone; and Debrah Farentino’s character needed a bit more substance to rise to the level of an authentic scream queen here. But – yes – the Cellar Dweller is, indeed, something to look at.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray copy of Cellar Dweller (1987) as part of their Enter The Video Store: Empire Of Screams Collection for the expressed purposes of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.