SXSW Film Festival 2022: The Cellar

When it comes to horror, I’m always rooting for a win. As with any film, of any genre, I go into it hoping to be elated, engaged, and by its end, proud.

With The Cellar, the film started by intriguing me right away. A family moves into a new, obviously creepy house, and there are haunted vibes that are hard to ignore. Yet, somehow, they do. Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and her husband and co-worker Brian (Eoin Macken), daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz), and son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady), check out the strange home, including the ominous cellar. Ellie seems to be the only one noticing the glaringly obvious TURN BACK signs, including strange mathematical symbols above the doors.

For me, the beginning and the end are really what works (with a middle section that tries way too hard to be a combination of horror tropes). There is a very creepy scene with Elisha Cuthbert on the phone with her daughter who is terrified as she has to go to the cellar when the power goes out. As she steps down she counts (which is her mom’s suggestion to combat fear, but it also ironically ties into the narrative too? HMM…). It’s a suspenseful sequence as her voice changes, almost stilled, soulless, eerie. I felt like this was going somewhere intriguing. Then it halted that impulse with a regression that reminded me of more successful, past horrors.

When her daughter then disappears, it’s clear that this new home the family got at a steal (shocker) isn’t so inviting. At first, everyone seems to think she’s run away, but her mother knows something more sinister is at play. Their relationship is clearly fractured early on (partly because of her parent’s job with social media and influencers, and her own struggles there) but it’s something that isn’t fully developed.

In fact, there are several moments that invoke a sense of a chilled, endless space, with visuals that stick with you. There’s a scene where the stairs to the cellar seem to go on forever, and you’re left wondering… where does it go? What kind of hellish arrival will await this family? If only they had leaned into that creepy impulse, this film may have gone another way.

Brendan Muldowney writes and directs, and while The Cellar was disappointing to me, and I truly wanted to love it, I’m still curious to see what he does next because there is some value to take away. One of the other biggest gripes with the film was the lighting, at times it was like we were completely in the dark, and it didn’t infer fear, just frustration.

source: SXSW Film Festival

Then the film pivots, leaning into its slow-burn too much. The insistence on horror tropes makes the movie fumble in its middle section, and even the last stretch, which shows some great promise, doesn’t make up for its downfalls. There are some interesting elements involving math (personally scary to me- HA) and folklore, but it doesn’t feel fully delivered. In some ways, its choice to go into “other dimensions” feels underdeveloped, and out there just for the sake of being “out there.”

Cuthbert is terrific, empowering as a mother trusting her maternal instincts that something is wrong and not giving up on her daughter. It was great to see her return to horror, but the movie doesn’t fully capitalize on an interesting idea. Instead, it lingers too much on its weak points, and refurbished brands, while losing the overall scope of what made it fascinating, to begin with. I can’t help but wonder what it could have been. This is what makes the film so disappointing to me: a premise that doesn’t take.

The Cellar premiered at SXSW Film Festival 2022

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