You can do a lot in ten days if you have to. If you’re like me, usually you don’t — apart from the typical stuff like going to work, eating dinner, spending time with the wife, reviewing movies for your blog — but still, when push comes to shove, ten days is enough time to get plenty of things done.
Just ask horror FX guru/occasional director John Carl Buechler. That’s all the longer it took him, back in 1988, to shoot his straight-to-video creature feature Cellar Dweller for Charles Band’s pre-Full Moon production outfit, Empire Pictures.
Okay, fair enough, whenever you’re engaged in a “rush job” undertaking like this one some of that is bound to show in the finished product, but the truth is, I’m actually surprised at how polished and professional this thing looks given the “hurry-up offense” its makers were running. Things get a bit jumbled up at the end, sure, but — well, shit, I’ve gotten ahead of myself a bit here, haven’t I?
First, as is our custom around these parts (and really should be the custom for all film review sites), the details : recent RSDI graduate Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino, here working under the name Debrah Mullowney), an up-and-coming comic book artist, has been granted a spot at the purportedly prestigious Throckmorton Center For The Arts, a privately-funded artists’ retreat in, apparently, the middle of fucking nowhere. There she encounters an old art school nemesis named Amanda (Pamela Bellwood), who, working in tandem with the center’s director/head mistress Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo of The Munsters fame) hatches a plot to oust Whitney from the premises simply because, well — the two dastardly damsels just don’t like our girl very much and don’t think very highly of comic books, either.
Which is sorta strange given Throckmorton’s history — these grounds, you see, were once home to legendary horror comic artist Colin Childress (portrayed in a brief opening flashback sequence by the Re-Animator himself, Jeffrey Combs), who drew a title called, wouldn’t ya know it, Cellar Dweller back in the pre-Code 1950s and apparently killed a woman here before perishing in a fire himself.
Or so we’re told —
Anyway, Whitney’s more than a big Childress fan, she’s positively obsessed with the man and his work, to the point where she even ensconces herself in the cellar where he used to make his home, despite (or, hell, maybe because of) the fact no one’s lived there since that fateful night 30 years ago. As fate (okay, the script) would have it, on her first day down there she discovers a dusty old trunk with an even dustier and even older occult grimoire of sorts inside it, and soon the horrific scenes she draws for her comic of a gigantic werewolf-ish beast with a Pentagram carved into its chest tearing her enemies up and eating them come to harrowing life — all of which would be well and good, I suppose, if not for the fact that some other pages that somebody else is drawing featuring the exact same monster weren’t starting to play out in the real world, as well.
Obviously the script here, by Child’s Play scribe Don Mancini, is a bit of a morally confused affair (using your drawings to kill is okay when you’re Whitney, not okay when you’re anyone else), and some of the characterization is a bit jumbled (a retired private eye who lives on the premises for reasons that make no sense is portrayed as a harmless of raconteur one moment, a nosy busy-body who deserving of violent and gruesome death the next), but whatever. It’s a clever enough premise that gaps in logic and common decency probably won’t bother you for too terribly long.
What just might bug you, though, is that ending I alluded to earlier, which is a pretty garbled piece of business in the extreme. I won’t give away too many specifics for those who haven’t seen it yet, suffice to say that “white-out good, fire bad!” when it turns out that Whitney can re-write history by merely applying Liquid Paper to her drawings and scribbling up some new images to make sure everyone has a happy ending — a happy ending that’s short-lived, though, since everybody dies all over again when her drawings accidentally burn up. For a fairly light-hearted bit of horror fare like this to have such a grim conclusion tacked on at the very last minute sorta tips the apple cart a bit too much for this armchair critic’s sensibilities and sends everybody home (alright, we were already at home at the first place if you wanna be pedantic about things) with more of a shrug than anything else.
Back on the plus side of the ledger, however, the cast generally acquit themselves pretty well here, apart from Brain Robbins who never makes much of an impression as Whitney’s supposed love interest, and Buechler’s direction is reasonably brisk and pacy and his creature effects work displays his usual low-budget wizardry (yes, he pulled double duty here). The end result may not be anything tremendously memorable by any stretch, but it’s a competently-enough-executed affair to compel you to let its many flaws slide and just go with the flow.
For those intrigued enough to give this particular haunted cellar a visit, the flick has just been released on DVD by Scream Factory as part of its bargain-priced double-disc “4 All Night Horror Marathon Volume Two” collection. The full-frame picture and mono sound aren’t without their flaws (the picture especially), but what the hell, they get the job done just fine and no one expects perfection from these DTV re-issues in the first place, do they? Extras are non-existent, but again, for under ten bucks, how much does a person really expect? Serviceable enough is the term I think we’re looking for here.
Which, funnily, isn’t too shabby a description of Cellar Dweller itself.