Not a nadir in recent horror cinema, but well below average – and below sea level – “The Cellar” is a logical contraption whose core elements seem all too obviously determined by the demands of international co-production, rather than by internal logic. Starring scream queen Elisha Cuthbert as a mother who unwittingly moves her family to a house of supernatural peril, this Western Ireland-shot thriller, made in collaboration with Belgian interests, is technically polished. But late writer-director Brendan Muldowney lacks the thick atmosphere that might have punched through a sketchy script, which isn’t enough to expand the premise of his 2004 short “The Ten Steps.” RLJE Films launches this SXSW premiere in North American theaters on April 15, alongside its streaming launch on Shudder.
Muldowney’s ten-minute short is essentially recycled as a first act here, with a bit more setup. Married advertising professionals Keira (Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) have moved to an old mansion in the Emerald Isle countryside for work. Which doesn’t make much sense, nor does dad sharing an Irish accent with his elementary school son Stevie (Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady), while mom and brooding teenage daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) sound pure Yank. Nevertheless, the family’s main problem initially concerns said teenager’s bad attitude, which apparently preceded the move which she is now very unhappy about. Left alone to babysit Stevie while the parents have a business dinner, the already frightened Ellie sees the lights go out. Told by phone to go downstairs and get the circuit breakers, she goes down into the damp cellar…and disappears.
The police think she is on the run, but Keira thinks something else is going on. His research into the house’s confusing past digs up an ominous tangle of gibberish encompassing 12th-century alchemists, Knights Templar, Schrödinger’s cat, mathematical equations and a biblical sea monster, all somehow adding to this menace. generic “an ancient evil”. This evil wants this family – but why, or why, “The Cellar” doesn’t bother to explain.
Even such a rudimentary “evil demon, family good” dynamic could pass the mark if the undercooked narrative were flavored with enough creepiness in mood and settings. But aside from a few adequate jumps, the film stubbornly refuses to develop a suspenseful grip. There are far too many scenes (particularly loaded on Cuthbert) in which the characters exaggerate fear when hardly anything is happening at all, even though Stephen McKeon’s original score tries hard to suggest otherwise, with quasi-singing chants. Omen-type Gregorians. Even a climactic leap into fantasy imagery seems to lack energy and imagination, like so much else here: Hell seems like an endless queue of sleepwalkers.
Worse still, it turns out that the trick of the thin story’s terror is people reciting numbers aloud as they count steps toward the cellar and/or another mysterious dimension. This device produces only moderate chills the first time. By the third or fourth, it’s a somewhat laughable reminder of the film’s inability to scare, or even create a basic suspension of disbelief. Intended to induce dread, hearing “1, 2, 3, 4…” instead becomes this lethargic cooler’s hypnotic call for the weary viewer to fall asleep.
An uneven cast manages to be unconvincing in different ways, their modes of performance ranging from histrionic to uncommitted. Sometimes the protagonists barely seem to be in the same movie, let alone the same fictional family. It’s a shame, because “The Cellar” has the exterior materials needed for a spooky good time: the actual historic house used as the main location is awe-inspiring, and the surrounding scenic splendours are beautifully photographed by DP Tom Comerford. Last year, another Irish horror, Damian McCarthy’s ‘Caveat’, created an ingenious and spooky experience in the few dark rooms of a cottage, but this film doesn’t seem to find its own pulse – or raise ours – in a relatively luxurious setting perfect for the gothic thrill.