Cellar Door: A Magdalene laundries experimental horror film

Review: The nightmarish film goes beyond the familiar church-takes-baby narrative

Cellar Door
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Director: Viko Nikci
Cert: 15A
Genre: Horror
Starring: Karen Hassan, Catherine Walker, Mark O’Halloran
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

One producer of Viko Nikci's second theatrical feature – following the fine documentary Coming Home – has bravely suggested that it plays like a Darren Aronofsky take on the Magdalene laundries. There's something in that.

The experimental horror certainly indulges continuing unease about the Catholic Church's mistreatment of unmarried mothers. The criss-crossing time scheme and hallucinatory editing may trigger those who have only just recovered from Aronofsky's Mother.

But in one important sense (one we can’t clarify here for fear of spoilers) the film ends up as something different. A late, jarring reveal pulls the strands together in a way that will seem a little too neat for some viewers. It’s a mad ride, but it’s ultimately to a purpose.

She encounters a nun who is scary in a fashion only the scalpel-voiced Catherine Walker could manage

The charismatic Northern Irish actor Karen Hassan – late of The Fall – plays a young woman who believes that her child has been taken away from her. She moves furiously from space to space in search of the infant, but meets confusion at every corner.


She encounters her mother. She encounters a nun who is scary in a fashion only the scalpel-voiced Catherine Walker could manage. The always-welcome Mark O’Halloran is on hand as an initially emollient priest. That near-synopsis suggests that we’re heading into depressingly familiar territory – the young woman who surrenders her baby to an uncaring church – but the film is so slippery in its structure that no viewer will trust such unambiguous parsing.

Cellar Door is literally nightmarish. The terror that accompanies a search for something precious is a common factor in dreams, and that connection further undermines the notion that there may be a rational explanation here. Robert Flood's rich, spooky cinematography adds to the otherworldliness. Before long, the connecting thread from one sequence to the next gets lost in the creative jumble. Too much of Cellar Door feels like an unstructured juxtaposition of striking sequences.

It does, however, come together in its closing minutes and – no small compliment – will repay a second viewing. There's a cult out there waiting for Cellar Door.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist