If death and taxes are the only two sure things in life, haunted house movies dominating the horror genre year-on-year might as well be the third. From gothic manors to crumbling council flats, it feels like every damned dwelling in the Western world has been given the Amityville treatment by this point. And while most are cut from the same, alarmingly similar, cloth, there’s usually at the very least, a fair bit of fun to be had in the surface-level differences. Fun which smartly-dressed Irish chiller The Cellar certainly looks to double down on, albeit at the cost of any real narrative foundations.
Elisha Cuthbert stars as icy matriarch Keira, a career-driven mum to a wonky family she’s just uprooted to a dusty old mansion in the Irish wilderness. A dusty old mansion which just so happens to have an even dustier, and older cellar. And when her rebellious teenage daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) vanishes mid-argument while down in said cellar, Keira becomes obsessed with the house’s sordid history, just as a good old fashioned haunting takes over the lives of the entire family.
If it sounds familiar, that’s because 99% of The Cellar’s script is very much a copy and pasting exercise. Writer-director Brendan Muldowney, rather fairly takes an “if it ain’t broken…” approach to a lot of the haunted house nuts and bolts, choosing to focus on dressing them sharply instead. Which cinematographer Tom Comerford (veteran of the Irish mystery with his stellar work on The Hole in the Ground and Rose Plays Julie) seizes nicely, painting from an eerie, mostly monochrome colour palette, giving the gothic chiller a sleeker, 21st century makeover.
The 1% of originality in the script that does squeak through is worth a closer look too, putting a slightly different spin on the usual ancient symbols and demonic hell dimensions; an odd but very welcome sidestep that gets a heftier, dread-induced supercharge in the film’s final act.
But even with all that en-tow, there’s still something profoundly off with The Cellar as a whole. All the loose, familiar elements might be in place, and Muldowney and his team can certainly stage a decent jump (even if they are mostly few and far between), but the film is profoundly lacking in any real sense of connective tissue, or payoff.
Cuthbert is as watchable as ever but certainly struggles to fully understand Keira, namely because there’s not much to her on the page, beyond being an overworked mum who drives a BMW and answers the phone a lot. Her onscreen husband Eoin Macken lands an even rawer deal (he doesn’t even get the BMW), and without any vaguely interesting (or even really existent) characters to get behind or build a journey around, The Cellar’s entire narrative crumbles.
The absolute fundamentals in logic aren’t even covered here; we’re never even given a good enough reason for why they moved to the obviously haunted house in the middle of nowhere. Everything is essentially an empty shell that exists solely to allow creepy stuff to happen, building towards a fairly creative climax, but one which lands as much more of a confused head tilt, as opposed to the utter sucker punch Muldowney might’ve intended it to be.
The Cellar is stylish enough, and will just about tick the necessary boxes for the seasoned horror fan looking for another run of the mill Amityville clone. But without much to get behind in terms of characters, or any real narrative follow-through, there’s frustratingly little to recommend to anyone other than haunted house veterans here.