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SXSW Review- The Cellar- Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

The Cellar is an old school haunted house movie with an interesting twist that makes it all worth it.

The formula for these sorts of movies is pretty simple. Have unsuspecting rubes move into a house, ignore red flags everywhere until it is too late, and then trap them after they finally realize they should get out. The Cellar uses this same blueprint and a number of familiar tropes like an ominously bouncing ball, creaking doors, and locking doors to ramp up the dread. All of that before people go missing and children begin counting.

Keira(Elisha Cuthbert) and her family have moved to a large remote mansion after buying the too-good-to-be-true home at an auction. Her daughter is less than thrilled to have to leave her friends and world behind, and there is a fair amount of family tension as a result. Keira and her husband Brian(Eoin Macken) run a successful marketing firm, and their first night in the house, they leave their kids Steven(Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady and Ellie(Abby Fritz). Earlier in the day, Ellie is inexplicably locked in the basement, and she is less than thrilled to be left home alone now. While Keira and Brian are tending to their important client, the lights go out, and Ellie disappears.

The next act of The Cellar plays out as you would expect, with atmospheric creepiness and strange kid behavior. The inner workings of this house are revealed slowly. Tom Comerford’s camera captures things that make us uneasy, even if we don’t know why yet. Just as Keira misses some crucial details, Brendan Muldowney’s direction deliberately lingers, making us stare hard into the shadows for what we don’t know yet. We know there is something wrong taking shape in our periphery, but we can’t get a handle on it.

The majority of the film rests on Cuthbert(Captive), who makes us remember why she is so good in these kinds of roles. She never overacts, and her maddening calm works well to drive the tension further. Macken and Fitzmaurice seem only to be in the film to propel Keira towards the inevitable, but both do what is asked of them.

The film has that Irish dourness that other chillers, The Hole In The Ground and The Devil’s Doorway, do. Combined with the unique conceit, there is a lot to like. The Cellar layers clues like the cobwebs that hang in dimly lit corners. This is a place we’ve been before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t done well or it doesn’t have a few tricks up its leave. Muldowney chooses slow burn anxiety rather than cheap jump scares for the better. This is a patient, atmospheric movie that makes good use of its well-shot production design.

Like most haunted house movies, there is a fair amount filmed in the dark. We expect lights to fail, candles to go out, and shadows to blanket everything. Unfortunately, it comes with the package. There are a tad too many dark scenes that make it difficult to suss out precisely what is happening all the time, but I can forgive that considering how well done the last twenty minutes are. If the beginning was an exorcise in slow-burning patience, the ending is a truly harrowing experience.

Likely you will see some of it coming, but Brendan Muldowney does something different in the final reveal that is worth sticking around for. Without spoiling anything, all Hell breaks loose, and the ending will undoubtedly be debated long after the credits roll. The washed-out set pieces of the finale and deeply unsettling weirdness of what is really going on are grounded by Cuthbert’s adherence to controlled panic in the face of every parent’s nightmare.

The Cellar is a good movie. For lovers of moody, supernatural slow burners, it satisfies several itches. You should learn from watching that not every house that seems too good to be true is going to turn out like CBS’s charming Ghosts. Some gift horses should be looked in the mouth because they might be a beast from Hell and never ever play antique record players. Also, brilliant physicists shouldn’t be trusted. The road to Hell is paved not with good intentions but with mathematics.

The Cellar premiered at SXSW and has already found a home at Shudder. Find all our SXSW coverage here.