The Cellar Review: Who Says Math Can’t Be Scary [SXSW]

Brendan Muldowney's "The Cellar" is an adventurously melancholic representation of Irish horror much like Corin Hardy's "The Hallow" or Lee Cronin's "The Hole in the Ground." On paper — and briefly, in practice — there's nothing exceptional about another spooky manor playing host to a new family's gravest fears. Muldowney ushers audiences into another musty residence we've seen decoratively tweaked a thousand times, until mythology and ambitions extrapolate further and grander like the films mentioned above. A haunted house becomes a puzzle of Hebrew glyphs, summoning spells, and far more than bumps in the night called upon by every indie horror director hoping for James Wan to extend a Conjuring Universe invitation.

Marketing gurus Keira (​​Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian Woods (Eoin Macken) — who are also husband and wife – move their children into a new, far away estate. Daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) often voices her bratty frustrations, as merciless as any teenager torn from her routine. Portraits from the past owners still hang, and dust has accumulated, but Brian attempts to lessen the blow of transplantation by giving Ellie a grand tour — that ends with her locked in the basement for a few seconds. It's odd, yet doesn't bother anyone since Keira asks Ellie to babysit little brother Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) while both parents attend a late-night pitch meeting for a make-or-break client. That's the night everything changes — the night Ellie vanishes in the cellar.

As Muldowney divulges his haunting ingredients, "The Cellar" invests more effort than bargain-bin boogeyman flicks. When Brian surprises Steven with his video game den and the camera nervously zooms in on a closet door, we feel the expected tingle of ominous dread. As the shadow-drenched concrete stairway into the even more blotted-out basement becomes the lens' focus, we're treated to chills we've shivered before. These are the template notes that Muldowney lays as a foundation because any proper supernatural housewarming requires sturdy blueprints. As Keira investigates her rebellious child's disappearance as more than another runaway scenario, Muldowney pushes past predictable narrative milestones — although the filmmaker's sorrowful atmospheres remain consistently more impressive than storytelling comprehensiveness.

Harmless Horror Entertainment

"The Cellar" establishes quintessential haunted signatures like electricity flickering right before blackouts or doors creaking open without visible reason. Refurbished moodiness hangs thick as Tom Comerford's cinematography inspects cobwebbed corners or no-good nothingness, and that's before children start reciting numerical patterns like an evil math wizard. Comerford cleverly avoids architectural clues until viewers should ponder them, like ancient sayings over entrances or etched symbols above doorways. We're never foolish enough to assume Keira and Brian's new home away from distractions is sacred soil. However, repulsive forces are hidden by pacing that emphasizes sustained tension over short-burst scares.

It's difficult because "The Cellar" is a festival flick that leans so effusively on its third act, and there's nothing I dare spoil. ​​Elisha Cuthbert becomes the stereotype of mothers who'll suspect any theories explaining their brood's predicament, including help from a mathematician genius who can visualize numerical sequences after an unfortunate (er ... fortunate?) vehicular accident. Haunted house rules become less rigid when mythologies unravel out of control (good and bad), as Cuthbert's desperate performance pushes against Eoin Macken as the manly voice of reason. Their dramatic chemistry, along with Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady succumbing to the house's trickery like another child of the corn, helps ground whatever evilness comes stomping upstairs from the cellar — and trust me, that's literal.

That's where I'm forced to leave y'all, with a message of patience and fulfillment in support of "The Cellar." Brendan Muldowney nails the technical illustrations of haunted house creepiness but doesn't stop with another throwaway possession or pale-faced spectral adversary. Muldowney pulls from the depths of Hell and creates this amalgamation of satanic influences sketched around algebraic formulas like Sam Raimi brainstormed with your least favorite high school subject's teacher. Elisha Cuthbert reminds us that she belongs in stressful and invasive horror scenarios ("House of Wax," "Captivity,"), shining as a matriarch motivated by guilt and battling unholy codes as another protagonist gone unbelieved. It's a solid Friday night spookshow with solid bones and a divisive finisher — harmless horror entertainment that at least strives to be better than ordinary.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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