In almost all horror films, it’s never a good idea to go into the basement. Things seem to always take a turn for the worst when someone takes the ominous walk down the creaky steps. The same rules apply in Brendan Muldowney’s The Cellar, except in this basement, it’s a stairway to hell that’s littered with complex mathematical equations.
Keira and Brian Woods, played by Elisha Cuthbert and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter star Eoin Macken, are executives at an advertising agency that move into a new home in the Irish countryside with their rebellious teenage daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) and young son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady). As soon as they arrive at the house, problems begin to arise after Ellie finds herself trapped in the house’s cellar.
Muldowney’s clever camerawork establishes a spiritual presence in the cellar as the camera slowly climbs up each step as Ellie struggles to open the door. Just before the camera reaches the top of the stairs, Brian finally gets the door open, avoiding the demonic spirit for now. The atmospheric horror is set, and only bad things will happen from here on out.
The scariest scene in the entire film also happens to be its best, which occurs shortly after the aforementioned close call with Elli. When Keira and Brian head to the office for the night, Ellie is left alone to babysit her brother. The duo begins to uncover some of the house’s secrets, including a record player that shouts out numerical commands. Later on, the power goes out, and Ellie must walk to the bottom of the cellar, which takes ten steps, to check out the circuits. This tense moment is the basis for Muldowney’s award-winning short film, 2004’s The Ten Steps.
With her mother on the phone and a candle in her hand, a terrified Ellie counts each step aloud as she slowly makes her way down to the bottom. Keira encourages her to continue, despite Ellie’s hesitancy. It’s a costly decision as Ellie disappears at the tenth step, and a treacherous voice continues to count past ten, which horrifies Keira on the other line. Fitz shines here as the insubordinate teenage daughter who realizes she needs her mother, while Cuthbert, a “Final Girl” in her own right, is more than believable as the tough mother who finally shows some compassion.
After Ellie disappears, the film shifts in tone from a tense horror to a detective mystery. Keira spots mathematical numbers, equations, and symbols all throughout the house. Using math to serve as the backdrop for an evil house is unique and intriguing. However, The Cellar loses its frightening edge throughout the middle of the film. Terrifying sequences like Ellie’s walk down the staircase are replaced with lukewarm jump scares and confusing discussions about mythology and physics. To the film’s detriment, it never feels like Ellie, Brian, and Steven are truly in danger when the spiritual presence leaves the cellar and tries to wreak havoc on the remaining three members.
The Cellar regains its fearful edge in the last act as Keira finally faces off against the demon that’s been haunting the entire family. The final set piece is both jarring and sinister, as the unnerving atmosphere from the beginning returns from Ellie’s staircase sequence.
Despite the lack of terror in the middle section, the few spine-chilling scenes at the beginning and end, along with the interesting premise, are worth opening the door to the haunted cellar.
The Cellar will be in theaters and will stream on Shudder starting April 15.