Brendan Muldowney’s short film The Ten Steps (2004) is one of the best little horror movies ever made – a simple, creepy situation with a terrific punchline. Now, The Cellar joins When a Stranger Calls as a feature-length remake and expansion of the piece – a risky project since it was the original’s simplicity which worked so well. Muldowney – whose previous features are Savage, Love Eternal and Pilgrimage – takes his nugget and spins it out effectively, with Lovecraftian mathematics/semiology opening a portal to another dimension (a hellscape akin to those visited in some Lucio Fulci films of the early 80s) and Elisha Cuthbert as one of the tiger mums who’ve turned up often in recent sundered family horror pictures.
The Woods family – Keira (Cuthbert) and Brian (Eoin Macken) and their children, surly teenage Ellie (Abby May Fitzmaurice) and prankster Steven (Dillon Fitzmaurice) – move into a large, creepy house … and Ellie is especially resentful of being dragged away from her friends. The home is decorated with all sorts of subliminal symbols and ominous bric-a-brac but Abby’s terror is focused on the cellar. While her parents are out and she’s babysitting, Abby finds she has to go down to the cellar to check the fuse box because of a power outage – and has to be talked through it by her mother over the phone, counting down the ten steps (which are numbered) but then descending further or deeper or beyond and vanishing. In the aftermath of Ellie’s disappearance, the authorities are traditionally at sea and Brian turns out to be that other familiar figure of horror, the utterly useless rational husband. As she tries to puzzle out all the clues built into the fabric of the house, Keira becomes a lone crusader and must overcome her own doubts and fears to follow her daughter into a limbo that isn’t what anyone could expect.
The haunting in The Ten Steps is necessarily a throwaway convenience – the local story is that the Devil was once seen in the cellar of the old house – but here it’s spun out into a locus of cosmic significance. Muldowney often makes films about obsessed, questing characters who risk losing themselves – just consider the titles of his other features – but here folds all these concerns back into a horror movie format and gives Cuthbert, who has gained gravitas since her earlier horror heroine turns in House of Wax and Captivity, a tour-de-force role as a woman we know isn’t mad.
Here’s the original short film.