Written by: Don Mancini
Directed by: John Carl Buechler
Starring: Yvonne De Carlo, Debrah Farentino, and Brian Robbins
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"He who has wisdom, wonders not of the beast, for nothing in hell lives without Man's consent. Woe unto you that gives the beast form. To contemplate evil, is to ask evil home."
Charles Band started a revolution with both Empire and Full Moon, shattering the illusion that theatrical releases were a necessity and releasing films direct to video stores. One of the craftiest side effects of this strategy was putting horror movies in front of kids that likely never had a chance to see such fare in theaters, so it’s no surprise that a lot of these studios’ output looked kind of kid-friendly despite being slightly inappropriate for that audience. Emphasis on slightly, though, because Band consistently found that sweet spot for sleepover horror movies—the ones with enticing, candy-colored cover arts that often concealed some gnarly, nasty, but mostly harmless shit. Sure, your parents may have been dismayed had they walked in at a particularly inopportune moment, but these movies were never really scary, and I think that was the point: I like to think an entire generation of Monster Kids were raised on this stuff because it found a certain delight in delivering cheap, forbidden thrills. Horror should be fun sometimes.
Band released more memorable and notorious films, but John Carl Buechler and Don Mancini’s Cellar Dweller is a prime example of this. It had the evocative VHS cover with a monstrous hand groping at a pair of legs in fishnets, and a cool hook: what if the pages of a comic book could come to life? More importantly, what if those pages featured a hideous monster capable of ripping its victims’ heads clean off? At a certain age, you don’t need much more than that. Hell, maybe we’d all be better off if this could sometimes be enough at any age.
Jeffrey Combs appears in the film’s prologue, hinting that something truly great may be lurking ahead. His presence only amounts to backstory though: he’s Colin Childress, a renowned comic book artist summons a spirit into his cellar, where it kills his girlfriend before he burns his entire estate down to slay the beast. Decades later, the site of the Childress home has been renovated into an art institute run by Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo). Full of eccentric artists, the institute is set to welcome its newest student in Whitney Taylor (Deborah Farentino), who quickly learns the place is fairly permissive, save for one rule: don’t rummage around in the cellar. Her desire to do her idol proud overrules her desire to be a good student, so when she uncovers some of Childress’s old work, she unwittingly unleashes the bloodthirsty monster from decades earlier.
Cellar Dweller sometimes feels like a monster movie made for budding Monster Kids. Whitney is an obvious surrogate for this audience: she adorns her walls with horror movie posters (most of them Band productions, naturally), and she’s literally trying to turn a childhood obsession into a lifestyle. If you had asked me what my dream job would have been at ten years old, it would have been exactly this, so Cellar Dweller would have spoken directly to me. The giant monster wreaking havoc would have said a lot, too, and, with Buchler at the helm, the effects are indelibly designed and painstakingly realized. The title creature feels like the stuff a bunch of kids might conjure up during a sugar rush, blending elements of werewolves, gargoyles, vampires, and even a wendigo—it just looks like a capital “M” Monster from a Monster Movie.
Like most of Buechler’s directorial work, Cellar Dweller feels like a rickety vehicle for the effects work. It might be the most egregious in this respect because the plot is so threadbare: once Whitney summons the monster, the story degenerates into a series of schlocky outbursts to give Buechler and his effects team a decent chance to show off their stuff. A decapitation is the highlight of the comic book violence showreel: in keeping with the story material, Cellar Dweller never feels truly revolting or scary, though I imagine some kids may peek at this one from beneath their bed sheets from time to time. It’s cartoon spooky, complete with occasional animated flourishes to keep it on that sleepover wavelength. If you could project the kind of scary stories kids might share in their sleepover tents, I imagine it’d look like this. There’s just a “one dark night…” quality to it, with a girl arriving at a spooky house, where the wind is perpetually whipping about under a fool moon.
To that end, it also looks and feels an awful lot like an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Even at 77 minutes long, the case could be made that Cellar Dweller might have been a little more effective as an anthology segment in order to trim some of the fat (read: character moments involving characters you know are disposable). Both Crypt and Tales from the Darkside proved to be perfectly capable of dealing up bite-sized chunks of monster movie mayhem, and this would have fit the former’s vibe especially. But I suppose they did at least have the good sense not to stretch it out any more, allowing it to land somewhere between an anthology segment and a proper feature film, so you’re never left too parched for violence (or even nudity, which I suppose would be a sleepover priority at a certain age). Lisa’s ability to influence reality with her artwork also adds a nice wrinkle, too—it’s not that she just summons a monster to do her bidding, but she sometimes assists him by drawing in embellishments, like when she makes her old art school rival slip on a banana peel as she’s trying to escape.
Truly, no moment better captures the silly essence of Cellar Dweller. I’m sure there’s a much more serious story to be mined from this material that explores the perils of artistic obsession and jealousy, but this ain’t it. This is firmly an Empire Pictures affair, a light on its feet creature feature destined to lurk in the shadows of the much more notable work that Buechler and Mancini did in 1988. This is to say that, no, this isn’t Jason or Chucky, but that’s exactly the sort of void Empire and Full Moon would often fill: when someone else had already rented the big guns, you could always turn to the likes of Cellar Dweller to get you through the weekend.
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