★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
The Cellar, which debuted at SXSW 2022, feels on the surface like a fairly conventional haunted house film, but it produces some fairly clever takes on the traditional model. A physicist uses an arcane equation to save his dying son but ends up damning himself and dooming the family that has just moved into the mansion in which he disappeared. Yep, Math makes demons. I always suspected that to be true.
Directed by Brendan Muldowney
Mathematics are supposed to make sense of the Universe, to make order from chaos. but all he succeeded in doing was bringing darkness into the world. A darkness that has existed since before the universe began. Something ancient, something that has been known… by many names.Rose (Marie Mullen) in The Cellar (2022)
Ask any high school junior struggling with trigonometry. OK… make that ask the sixteen-year-old me, who struggled with the aforementioned trig. Math is out to get you. It is all-powerful and what you don’t understand about it makes it that much more terrifying. Granted, maybe that was just me, but this hit home to my equation-addled brain. Math is hard, and it would not surprise me that it could be used in rites used to summon unspeakable ancient evil. That which is beyond the comprehension of most minds must be the province of some unfathomable cosmic force. H.P. Lovecraft would be proud.
Into this world of evil mathematics enters advertising consultant Keira (Elisha Cuthbert, The Girl Next Door, House of Wax), her husband and business partner Brian (Eoin Maken, The Forest), her surly teenage daughter Ellie (newcomer Abby Fritz), and her aloof younger son Steven (Dylan Fitzmaurice Brady) who move into a decaying stately manor in rural Ireland. Ellie is immediately aghast and animatedly makes her disapproval known. Upon entering the home, Ellie curiously goes into the basement only to have the door close behind her, giving the first taste of a haunting.
In what would turn out to be a terrible error of house-move planning, both Keira and Brian leave the children behind on the first night in the house in order to finalize an advertising campaign. Ellie and Steven find a mysterious phonograph stashed in a closet, and when played, rather than music a voice reads out an equation, followed by a countdown. It doesn’t take the kids long to tire of this odd recording, but what has been initiated can’t be undone. The equation is an incantation, and it has loosed the evil in the house upon the family, as Ellie mysteriously disappears in a descent into the cellar in a response to a power outage created by the spirits.
The initial structure of the disaffected and surly teen is a structurally sound method for allowing for a runaway teen. The rebellious teen vibes that come on so strong early in the film pay off here, which was a relief, as the angry teen came off initially as a cliche. (Think Poltergeist) It allows for the mystery and dread to rebuild and some proper paranormal investigation to occur.
Cuthbert manages to pull off the stressed-out professional mom, who is having a hard time dealing with the mounting circumstances. It’s a welcome return from her to the big screen, after spending much of the past 15 years on TV. She doesn’t overplay her hand as the matriarch in distress, but it is clear that she is the one in charge of this story.
Brian is a fairly ineffectual dad, though. His general lack of distress is odd, and his role is largely passive. It isn’t as if he is strongly in denial either, the character is largely a cipher, a presence largely there to fill a role. Honestly, this film could have been done with Keira as a single mother and it would have been the exact same film.
As the protagonistic lead, I rather appreciated the investigative work that Keira manages. As in many good haunting stories, the historical investigation is key, and the reveal of the back-story is spun out well and never feels exposition-heavy. The intelligence of the plot connective tissue, however, does not continue into some of the reactions, or lack of reactions by the family, however.
All indications are that there is something seriously wrong in the house, and everybody should get out. As the evidence mounts, it should have taken very little to heed the abandon ship signal. She connects the dots and rightly suspects the equation carved into the cellar floor to be something more than just construction notes. She finds that the previous owner of the home was a brilliant physicist who disappeared mysteriously in the house after modern medicine failed to save his ill son, and created a mathematical formula that could save his boy at the risk of damning his entire family.
Both Brian and Steven seem surprisingly unperturbed by the disappearance of Ellie, even if it is as the police suspect (but we know better) that she is a runaway teen. That seemed off. And given all the creepy goings-on, Steven had a very annoying habit of messing around with toys that would inevitably lure him into compromising situations. I would have been obsessively on-guard, but he seemed completely unfazed.
Like many ghost stories, the story is largely bloodless, but it maintains the scares well. The powerful symphonic score by Stephen McKeon is put to good use, ramping up the drama. At times, the production becomes a bit too over-dependent upon the soundtrack, and it gets a bit overcooked at times, but it does its job in setting the dread. There are also plenty of gratuitous doors blowing open and slamming, and cold drafts blowing through the house.
What elevates this film though is the conclusion. It sticks the landing. Twice. The revelations of what the plot promises are executed well. The brief glimpses of the evil source, and the descent into the depths of what lies beyond are chilling, and the closing moment is on point.
The feel of the movie is a familiar blend of the dysfunctional family trope and traditional haunted house. It has a tone of a more somber, less effects-driven Poltergeist along with a hint of Hereditary thrown in, though considerably less violent. Those are notably high bars to reach for, and I can appreciate that they set their aspirations high. And, strike one up for the mathematically challenged. This one is for you, proving that all of your cursings at the algebra pop quizzes were justified. Math is evil.
You can check out the trailer for The Cellar right here: