The Cellar (1988)

JULY 28, 2022


My son is now 8, and after many unsuccessful attempts he is finally starting to be able to sit through live action movies even when they're not wall to wall "stuff happening." I can still see him getting restless when they get too talky (Avengers: Endgame was rough until the time travel stuff kicked into gear), but he's also doing better at tracking plotlines, so when he's invested enough the action-free chunks don't seem to bug him as much. And he even managed to get through a "scary" movie (Jurassic World Dominion), so there's hope that it won't be long before I could show him a movie like The Cellar, which is a PG-13 monster flick with a lead that's only a little older than he is.

I mean, yeah, there are better "entry point" types I could show him, like The Monster Squad or maybe even Gremlins, but I think some parents blunder by showing their kids nothing but classics, which gives them the idea that EVERY MOVIE is a 5-star must-see. Nah, most movies are like The Cellar, which has its share of issues (a lethargic pace at times, for example) but is worth a watch and has some strong points. In this case, it's got a great monster and a kid-appropriate plot, in that he believes that there's a monster but naturally no one else does, and due to some plot machinations has to resign himself to lie and say he was making it up in order to keep others safe. For example, at one point his pet toad runs into the titular cellar (where the monster is confined) and he is naturally upset about it. His stepmom offers to go down and look for it, but he knows that'll put her in danger, so he says that he actually lost the toad outside somewhere. Since kids tend to think of lying as something that is "bad but I have to do it or I'll get in trouble" without exception, I like the idea of a movie showing them that sometimes a lie is necessary for the greater good.

It also focuses heavily on the kid and his dad (usual bad guy Patrick Kilpatrick, surprisingly strong as a Dennis Quaid-y kinda regular guy) bonding when they don't see each other that much, as the kid lives with his mom in Chicago through the school year and then visits his dad (who lives in Arizona) in the summer. The dad also doesn't believe his stories about monsters, and it ultimately enters into low-key Shining territory with Kilpatrick getting more and more frustrated about everything (including losing his job) and taking it out on his family, but ultimately he realizes his son is telling the truth, and the kid even gets to save his old man's life with his quick thinking. I think my own son would appreciate seeing something like that, and the vibe would get him through the less successful parts.

That would be the aforementioned pacing, as the monster takes a while to make his grand appearance, and the backstory requires some lengthy exposition sequences (it also opens on a flashback for good measure). But I don't really blame director Kevin Tenney for this, as he came on after the film already started shooting under another director, who was fired by the producers for being too slow. Basically they fired the guy on a Friday, met up with Tenney over the weekend, and had him on set by Monday, which means he didn't get any time to fix the issues with the script, and was also locked into a cast, sets, etc. Tenney even admits he took the job because it was a no-lose scenario: if he pulled it off, he'd look great, and if he didn't, then he couldn't really be blamed when he had minimal input "beyond calling action and cut." But we can infer that this was always a bit of a slow burn story, which is fine for some things but a weird approach for a monster movie aimed at kids.

And for what it's worth, his cut is better than the producers' version, as they weren't fully satisfied with his work either and ended up recutting the film, with their version being the one that got sold and went out on video (despite Tenney's previous successes with Witchboard and Night of the Demons, it never had a theatrical run). Vinegar Syndrome's release is the first time Tenney's own cut has been made available, and it's clearly the superior of the two, as the other rearranges scenes at random (making the characters seem erratic) adds some mumbo-jumbo narration that just makes the story more confusing, and even shot new scenes with the young actor, who (being a kid and all) noticeably ages during these non-sequential scenes. Basically, it makes sense that their version had escaped my attention for over 30 years (even as a fan of Tenney's, I legit never heard of it), while his cut, though imperfect, would probably be on those lists of underrated '80s horror or something if it had been out there all along.

Tenney provides commentary for both tracks along with Kilpatrick and Suzanne Savoy (the mom), and all three appear with a few others in a lengthy retrospective documentary. Perhaps needless to say, you're gonna hear some of the same stories if you listen/watch all three supplements back to back, but they're all worth your time nonetheless. Everyone has a good sense of humor about the experience but, being released from a 3rd party, aren't afraid to be candid either, so you get a good mix of dirt and charming self-deprecation. And since the film hasn't had any sort of release since VHS, I assume its fans will be stoked about the blu-ray transfer, giving you good looks at the monster (the nighttime scenes are almost certainly the types that VHS viewers have trouble making out) and lovely Arizona scenery.

Technically this is a "From the Pile" entry but honestly it felt more like the sort of thing that I did HMAD for in the first place: a minor little gem that completely passed me by during release, and also one that didn't deserve its fate as a forgotten obscuro. Everyone involved has done better things (or at least, bigger things; the kid actor actually went on to direct Shrek 3!), but that doesn't make it a total wash either. And if you, like me, are a parent that's forever looking for appropriate stuff to show your hopeful horror-fan kid, movies like this are always a treat to find - in my case it was literally already in my collection. Thanks for the rescue, VS!

What say you?


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