Rating: 3 out of 5.

Snagged by horror streaming service Shudder ahead of its South by Southwest Film Festival debut, The Cellar is a cerebral and haunting film from director Brendan Muldowney. According to the kids at school, the new home of the Woods family was once owned by a witch who made a pact with the devil. Sounds like a lovely place to raise one’s family, and naturally, The Cellar wastes very little time getting the audience to the proverbial point. Elisha Cuthbert (House of Wax, Captivity) and Eoin Macken (The Forest, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter) headline this engaging but derivative horror thriller.

Only minutes into the film, Keira (Cuthbert) and Brian (Macken) have moved into their new home with children Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) and Ellie (Abby Fitz). Ellie gets stuck behind a weird door leading to the cellar that initially refuses to open, and can only be rescued with the aide of a dangling old key. Ellie is understandably not a fan of the cellar, and things take a turn for the creepy when Keira goes off to work for the night. Steven spooks Ellie with a cult-like costume he finds in the closet, and upon investigating, Ellie discovers an ancient gramophone hidden in the closet. Ellie calls Keira distraught, as she seems to have lost Steven somewhere. Searching for him eventually leads Ellie to the cellar (where else, eh?). In a tensely-lit sequence, with Keira on the phone guiding her, Ellie creeps down the steps into the dark space wielding only a candle…

Keira races home, but she is too late. Ellie has completely vanished. The authorities claim they will not investigate further, so Keira has no choice beyond taking things into her own hands. Getting stuck behind doors becomes a recurring motif, as does disbelief at Keira’s concerns despite the entire family being in very real danger. I am not entirely convinced that the mythological universe-spanning specifics actually fit the movie like a glove, but I digress. The ending is dark and disturbing enough to warrant buckling in for the ride and finding out where The Cellar will take us.

Children in peril, haunted houses, chilling portals, storybook-style monsters—whilst The Cellar may be an amalgamation of scarier and altogether superior selections from the horror genre, it gives no pretense. The film is upfront about the flavor of terror the viewer will taste from those first few minutes alone. This means little in the way of surprises; however, the strengths for me outweigh the weaknesses. Seeing Elisha Cuthbert return to the horror genre after a lengthy hiatus is perhaps the biggest takeaway. I would love to see Cuthbert in more roles like this one. Dealing with themes of motherhood and overcoming obstacles, Cuthbert imbues Keira with the charged energy of a determined mother. Know what to expect going in and one may find maximum enjoyment from Shudder’s The Cellar.

The Cellar screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival and Fright Fest Glasgow, and debuts later this year in theaters and on Shudder April 15.

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