Writer/director Brendan Muldowney’s The Cellar begins with a slow camera crawl up a dark and desolate flight of stairs and settles upon a pile of moving boxes. Many haunted house horror movies bring the viewer in with the same scenario. A family gets a great deal on the house they move into, the teenager is highly opposed to it, and dark secrets abound waiting to be revealed. Keira (Elisha Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) are trying to keep a steady view of their new place, while their rebellious daughter Ellie (Abby Fitz) wants nothing to do with it. Their youngest son, Stephen (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady), seems more open to the new surroundings.
But there’s something off about this house (as with many). The cellar door closes on its own, sealing Ellie within the first minutes the family is there. Strange symbols are carved on top of the doorways, and a weird mathematic equation is engraved on the cellar’s last step. Any other person would probably try to get their money back, but oh no! Brian got the property for a steal, so why leave? Muldowney understands why the unknown fear inside a new house would make someone uneasy. Ellie is never comfortable, and one night while the parents are away, the kids make a strange discovery—a record player with someone saying numeric incantations. The power gets cut, and while investigating with a solitary candle, Ellie disappears to an unknown force.
Much of The Cellar follows a familiar through-line within the next act of the movie. An investigation involving the police occurs upon Ellie’s disappearance, and they find very little. Keira goes on an extensive search to find out the meaning of the engravings and mysterious math around the house, which leads her to a lone surviving relative of the previous house owner and a physics professor, Dr. Mournet (Aaron Monaghan). Each realization leads you to the next piece of the mystery, as Muldowney tries to be ambiguous as possible until the very last part of the film. Where The Cellar succeeds is the combination of dread and atmosphere—Stephen McKeon’s sharp and jumpy score combined with the tension of what the evil may invoke some scares—even if some scenarios may repeat themselves.
There’s a subplot involving both Keira and Ellie’s relationship—Keira’s job involves social media marketing and a new campaign poised to cultivate competition with teens. Ellie seems to have a secret life Keira isn’t aware of until further investigation after her disappearance. This added context is used to cause some questions about the disappearance, but Keira’s character works better as a mother on a frantic search to save her daughter. Cuthbert’s portrayal of a mother who desperately wants to save her family from something she doesn’t understand is a highlight in the film. Her findings lead her to a physicist and occultist named John Fetherston, a previous owner of the house, whose experiments may have made most of his family suddenly vanish.
The use of math is a fresh way to get The Cellar‘s finale, which feels like a payoff for the audience going along for the ride. While it’s intriguing, the new ideas pick up a little later than some will hope. If audiences are looking for a quick, bump-in-the-night supernatural mystery, this would be worth a look.
Photo Credit: SXSW