A haunted house is more than ghosts and evil spirits in this atmospheric horror film from Brendan Muldowney.
It’s a tale as old as time — a family moves into a manor on an enormous country estate, and soon things go awry. Doors lock by themselves, strange whispers echo throughout the home, and people go missing.
Writer and director Brendan Muldowney’s THE CELLAR (2022) expands his 2004 short horror film The Ten Steps into a feature-length film. In the movie, a family moves into the manor of a former academic whose daughter sold the house upon moving into a nursing home. Counterculture daughter Ellie, played by newcomer Abby Fitz, knows something is wrong from the start. She tells her parents, Keira (Elisha Cuthbert)and Brian (Eoin Macken), but they both brush it off even after Ellie gets locked behind the eponymous cellar’s door and feels something walk up the stairs behind her.
The film's beginning establishes familial relationships, focusing on the strained mother-daughter connection between Ellie and Keira. Their relationship is one of the film’s highlights and acts as the driving force for its plot. THE CELLAR isn’t just about the haunted house. It’s about a mother and daughter trying to repair their relationship. Additionally, Ellie’s relationship with her brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) is also front and center, mainly because the film picks up the pace. At the same time, Ellie babysits her brother so her parents can attend an important work meeting.
While babysitting, the power goes out, and a haunting atmosphere takes over completely when Ellie enters the cellar to check the fuse box after already being mysteriously locked in once before. While on the phone with her mother, Ellie walks down the staircase, counting each step leading to the cellar floor. However, she counts past the usual ten steps, and her voice takes on a dreamlike cadence. Keira rushes home to save her daughter, but Ellie’s not in the cellar or anywhere else in the house.
As determined mother, Keira, Elisha Cuthbert is a star. Even when the film falls into typical horror film trappings, like a strange lack of grief on the part of the family regarding the disappearance of their daughter, Cuthbert delivers an emotional performance filled with urgency and worry. Macken, who may be most well-known as Gwaine in the BBC series Merlin, is underutilized in the film. He is relegated to the background and noticeably absent from a few key scenes where his whereabouts are unexplained.
Muldowney builds haunting tension despite this, with many of the film’s most vital points coming from his ability to ratchet up the eerie. In doing this, Muldowney makes the cellar a character with its own desires and motivations. The “scare” at the center of the film does wear out its novelty, and near mid-film, the fright factor deflates as the cellar takes more victims.
What was a riveting and tight short film feels bloated as a feature-length film. The film's final act tends to over-explain the mechanics of the house and what is actually happening, but the explanation ruins the horror aspect. Things don’t always need to be explained, especially in atmospheric movies like THE CELLAR. Muldowney would have benefitted by building up the house's lore to increase the creep factor rather than jumping into mechanics.
The explanation at the end of the film makes it progressively less scary; the excellent horror of The Ten Steps is that Muldowney left the ending unexplained. Leaning into the background of the house could have provided these explanations without making it overdone.
While this film isn’t revolutionary for the horror genre, it offers an excellent late-night watch. Without any gore or on-screen kills, it does feel relatively tame compared to other buzzworthy horror films released in the past year. Still, it manages to hold its own as a new entry into the ever-growing collection of haunted house films.
THE CELLAR is now streaming on Shudder.