It has been a full 18 years since Brendan Muldowney’s excellent short The Ten Steps won deserved prizes throughout the world. After acclaimed dramas such as Savage and Pilgrimage, the Irish filmmaker finally gets round to extending the film’s chilling premise – which we, of course, shan’t spoil – into an elegantly appointed feature. The Cellar does sag just a little in the middle, but its spooky beginning and apocalyptic denouement set it aside from the horror pack.
Elisha Cuthbert plays Keira, a youngish mother in viral marketing, who, after moving into a creepy Irish mansion, finds her assumptions about the universe questioned. Her daughter (talented newcomer Abby May) goes missing when investigating the cellar. Her husband (the reliable Eoin Macken) is not as helpful as he should be. Mystic symbols and strange sounds point her towards an ancient curse.
It is jarring to recall that, when The Ten Steps first played festivals, social media was barely in its infancy. The Cellar shows Keira dipping into unseemly online areas at work and, following the child’s disappearance, the story turns towards the issue of online bullying. A subtext looms about the everyday horrors we have brought upon ourselves. But the film is at its best when leaning into the haunted-house gothic of Henry James and Shirley Jackson. There is a bareness to the opening that chills more than any more explicit shocks could manage.
Much less successful are Keira’s investigations into a brand of “mathematics created by alchemists in the 12th century”. There is too much faffing about with boffins as she uncovers a supposed supernatural conspiracy that, having seen horror films before, you just know her husband is not going to believe. “Keira, this is delusional,” he says, as a thousand earlier unconvinced actors said before the headless horsemen (or whatever) arrived in the final act.
The cast work just about hard enough to keep us interested until the picture picks up again with a terrific, satisfactory conclusion. The best thing in the film, however, remains that lovely conceit from the original short. Seek it out after enjoying the longer version.
Opens on March 25th