Irish director Brendan Muldowney’s The Cellar is an expansion of a project he completed nearly 20 years ago. Based off of his 2004 short film The Ten Steps, Muldowney’s latest expands the Satanic parameters of the movie’s plot, which unfortunately dulls much of the dread inherent in the original short. Incorporating a slew of plotlines—demons, Jewish folklore and a police investigation among them—The Cellar is erratic and unfocused, entirely unsure of the story it wishes to tell. Aside from the one chilling scene grafted straight from The Ten Steps and its gorgeous, historic filming location, The Cellar just isn’t that deep.
The story begins where so many classic horror movies do: A family moves into a huge, historic house and creepiness immediately ensues. Mom (Elisha Cuthbert) and Dad (Eoin Macken) couldn’t be happier with their antiquated new abode, finding infinite charm in the worn-down floorboards and enormous reading room. Their eldest daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz), conversely, thinks the house is an unparalleled eyesore, one that no amount of teen-appropriate room décor can even begin to alleviate. Her younger brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady) approaches his new surroundings with predictable childlike curiosity, finding the old phonograph in the living room particularly intriguing. Yet one room inspires abject dread as opposed to nostalgic mystique: The cellar.
Mere moments after stepping foot into their new home, Ellie cautiously peers into the basement, only to have the door shut behind her before the rest of her family can follow. She frantically paws at the doorknob, which has locked solidly in place. Even with the voices of her parents reassuring her from the other side of the door, she begins to feel a presence slowly inching toward her up the pitch-black stairs. After the family realizes a key hangs directly above the door frame, Ellie is quickly freed. Though she’s clearly traumatized by the incident, her parents brush it off as the cruel trick of a finicky old lock. A few days later, however, Ellie calls her mother at work to let her know the house’s power went dead. When instructed to go into the basement and check the circuit breaker, Ellie immediately tenses up and refuses. Her mother gets her to agree by promising to stay on the phone the entire time, guiding Ellie by having her count the ten steps down the stairs in the darkness. Oddly, though, Ellie keeps counting well past the tenth step. She gets well past twenty before her mother ditches the office and races home. When she gets there, however, there’s no trace of Ellie.
What follows is a dizzying concoction of a film, combining elements of investigative thrillers and generic Satanic silliness, neither connecting effectively to the other. The Cellar’s narrative shortcomings feel all the more damning when the original short film was already so perfectly chilling. In this sense, it’s no surprise why the director felt the need to rehash this specific project—he’s simply trying to bank on the dread that effortlessly oozes from The Ten Steps. Drawn out and incorporating nonsensical occultist elements, The Cellar takes a great short and turns it into overwrought drivel. Predictably, the one high point in the film is the scene that recreates the set-up of the short, wherein Ellie descends the basement’s steps. Even upon rewatch, the 2004 short continues to feel fresh, an impressive exercise in inducing dread in the viewer as quickly as possible. In contrast, The Cellar drags aimlessly past this scene, with any attempt to explain Ellie’s disappearance quickly devolving into empty extrapolation. At one point, her mother visits a university professor to help her crack a mysterious algorithm she found in the house. Even stranger than the professor’s confession that his mathematical prowess is the result of a recent bonk on the head is the repeated allusion to “Schrödinger’s cat” in the search for Ellie. Unfortunately, these are only two of the unnecessary tangents that burden the film with the weight of their inconsequence.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Cellar’s missteps in the criminal under-exploration of its filming location, the gorgeous Clonalis House in County Roscommon, Ireland. Instead of highlighting the brilliant architecture of the sprawling estate—already spooky and undoubtedly haunted by history—there is a pivot toward dreary green screens and dull lighting that threatens to obscure the property entirely. The fact that they’re (at least partially) filming in a Queen Anne-style 19th century home is overshadowed by a CGI demon and his uninspired gray dominion. As such, there’s no mention of the fact that the estate was constructed on the periphery of ruins that once housed the last High King of Ireland (again, the creepiness innate to the grounds needs little exaggeration). There’s a veritable trove of archival documents and historical anecdotes connected to the estate, making it all the more curious that the filmmaker didn’t tap into any of these tangible details. Instead, the house is merely a prop to be poorly lit and digitally altered—its fascinating connection to herds of cattle and the IRA trounced in favor of a bland Baphomet. For a film purportedly inspired by horror classics such as The Haunting and The Innocents, the character of the house itself is completely remiss.
Simply put, The Cellar totally fails as an adaptation of Muldowney’s original short. Though the director successfully conjures the anxiety of The Ten Steps’ tense ten minutes, it doesn’t remotely justify the film’s feature-length narrative. Least of all when that narrative is horribly disjointed, at once involving a haunted house, generational Satanism, Jewish folklore and a police investigation, leaving no room for any of these threads to productively unravel. There’s far too much that doesn’t gel together, muddying the film’s focus and causing the story to drag on and drain viewers as a result. Though it’s based on a genuinely gripping project, The Cellar feels like nothing more than a cheap imitation of the filmmaker’s previous achievement, in turn diminishing the impact of the original work. They say artists should learn to kill their babies—but it’s of tantamount importance to not meddle with their creations once they’ve been born.
Director: Brendan Muldowney
Writer: Brendan Muldowney
Stars: Elisha Cuthbert, Eoin Macken, Abby Fitz, Dylan Fitzmaurice-Brady
Release Date: April 15, 2022 (RLJE Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan