Family horror is a sub-genre that hasn’t really been given its due in recent years. Popular IPs like Goosebumps have been adapted into films that emphasize comedy over horror, and it’s nigh impossible to find any original family horror films getting released nowadays. We’ve had films like Monster House, Coraline and Joe Dante’s under-seen The Hole, but nothing really in the same vein as something like Gremlins or The Witches, which actually tried to frighten their younger viewers. Brendan Muldowney‘s The Cellar aims to remedy that with a dark, moody and somber film that emphasizes atmosphere over gore, making for a (mostly) family-friendly viewing experience that unfortunately feels all too familiar.
About a week after the Woods family moves into an old house in the Irish countryside, their daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) goes missing during a power outage. Ellie’s mother Keira (Elisha Cuthbert, House of Wax) investigates and finds that the walls have strange symbols engraved into them. After a number of strange supernatural experiences, she comes to the conclusion that the house took Ellie. Keira must then battle with the entity occupying her house’s cellar, or risk losing her daughter forever.
Adapted from Muldowney’s 2004 short film The Ten Steps (watch here), The Cellar thankfully avoids the criticism that plagues so many features adapted from short films: mainly that they feel like shorts stretched to feature length. By using the short as a jumping-off point for the story (it’s essentially remade with the new cast in a scene that takes place 20 minutes into the film), The Cellar is able to do away with the short’s content early on and focus on being able to stand on its own. The rest of the film follows Keira as she hunts for her daughter and unravels the mystery of the house and its previous owners.
The Cellar is Cuthbert’s film, and it’s refreshing to see the actress return to the genre after a 15-year absence (her last horror film was 2007’s Captivity). She does much of the heavy-lifting, tracking Keira’s grief as it morphs into resolve as the film slowly but surely makes its way to the big climax. She does well here, but her costars are unfortunately stuck with underwritten roles. This is especially true of Keira’s husband Brian (Eoin Macken, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter), who predictably disbelieves his wife’s claims of supernatural activity (until it’s too late, of course).
The main problem with The Cellar is that we’ve seen all this before, and we’ve seen it done better. The Cellar offers nothing new in the way of haunted house films, which makes it an overly familiar viewing experience. You’ve got your secret markings in the titular cellar that only appear under a black light, doors are always opening on their own, lights flicker, symbols are carved above all the doors that will lead to an inevitable Google search, an old phonograph plays the creepy ramblings of a madman and ghostly whispers echo through the halls. They’re all sufficiently unsettling, but that is the crux of the problem with The Cellar: it’s sufficient, but nothing more. The sole exception is some striking imagery that takes up the bulk of the third act, showing the creativity that Muldowney is capable of with his astute eye for visuals. One wishes that he had spread those elements throughout the film, rather than saving them for the last few scenes.
Shot during the pandemic, most of the film takes place in the house itself. It’s an imposing structure, with the exterior shots capturing the threatening presence of the estate. The problem is that Muldowney doesn’t do much to convey the creepiness of the house’s interiors. The camera moves through a lot of dark, empty halls, but it never feels truly threatening in the intended way. Not helping matters is Stephen McKeon‘s nonintrusive score, which doesn’t add much to the film’s looming dread. It’s possible that a lot of this is intentional in order to make the film fit into a family-friendly mold, but the end result is a film that younger viewers will likely be more bored than frightened by.
There’s also a subplot of sorts with Keira and Brian’s jobs working on a social media influencer campaign that is particularly half-baked. It’s appreciated that these scenes don’t lead to the all-too-common “distracted working mom might lose her job” narrative thread, but without something like that it makes those scenes feel like filler needed to pad the runtime more than anything else.
At the end of the day, The Cellar is fine. It’s wonderful to see Elisha Cuthbert back in the genre and Muldowney manages to eke out a few genuine chills in the third act, but it’s not enough to merit a strong recommendation. It’s a competently made film, but in an age where people have endless viewing options from streaming services, competent just doesn’t cut it anymore.
The Cellar will be in theaters and will stream on Shudder April 15.