The Cellar Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Vinegar Syndrome
Directed by Kevin S. Tenney
Written by John Woodward (based on a story by David Henry Keller)
1989, 84 minutes, PG-13
Released on May 25th, 2021
Patrick Kilpatrick as Mance Cashen
Chris Miller as Willy Cashen
Suzanne Savoy as Emily Cashen
Ford Rainey as T.C. Van Houten
Michael Wren as Chief Sam John
Lou Perry as Kyle Boatwright
Danny Mora as Chilo
Mance Cashen is moving to rural Texas with his wife Emily and newborn daughter. He wants to become a better father to Willy, his estranged son from a previous marriage, and arranges for the boy to come stay with them too. The previous owner of their house is a quirky older man named T.C. Van Houten, who seems to be withholding information from Mance. Chief Sam John is a Native American medicine man who watches over the property. The secret T.C. is keeping is that the land carries an ancient Comanche curse intended to scorn the white man, but proves less discriminatory when claiming victims. The evil spirit manifests as a puddle of bubbling goo, but is contained by a sacred Indian spear in the ground.
While cleaning the house, Mance and Emily discover a secret door to the cellar. The place is creepy and Mance cuts his exploration short when he hears something growling. Willy arrives and everything is going great until the kid plucks the sacred spear and trouble begins to bubble. T.C. befriends Willy and gives him a protective rabbit’s foot necklace. Later, Willy discovers a monster in the cellar and barely escapes. His parents don’t believe his story of course and soon people start disappearing. T.C. and Sam John do their best to help the family, but the monster begins to grow and becomes deadlier than ever. As the creature continues to kill, it’s up to Willy to convince his father that they are in danger and need to get the hell out of Texas.
Monsters of all variety have long haunted basements and cellars, waiting in the shadows to pounce on unsuspecting kids venturing down the creaky stairs investigating a strange noise. These are typically dark and dank windowless rooms with plenty of hiding places and privacy to do bad things. It’s a genre favorite that runs a close second to the thing lurking under your bed or hiding in your closet. Children are an easy target because they are small and curious and, best of all, if they get away no one believes their stories.
In The Cellar, Willy is smarter than the average kid protagonist and is more resourceful when confronting evil. Of course he is afraid, but he is brave enough to return at night and set traps to try to catch the monster. He also instinctively takes his lucky charm necklace and places it in his sister’s crib to protect her. T.C. confides he faced the monster when he was a child and does what he can to help Willy. Mance wants to believe his son but is too wrapped up in his own problems to do so and mom is busy doing mom things around the house. The actor playing Willy, Chris Miller, does a great job keeping the character likeable and relatable. Interesting trivia; as an adult he would go on to find success working on both the Madagascar and Shrek franchises, including writing and directing Shrek the Third.
Director Kevin S. Tenney (Night of the Demons, Witchboard) joined the production after the previous director was fired a week into filming for falling behind schedule. Tenney’s hands are tied stepping into the driver’s seat of a train already in motion and he worked to improve the script while shooting was underway. He confidently tackles the family drama aspects of the story, keeping things moving until he is able to step back into familiar monster territory in the third act. An additional constraint is the film was required to carry a PG-13 rating. He draws solid performances from his cast and generates tension whenever the monster is on the prowl.
Patrick Kilpatrick (The Stand) stars as Mance Cashen, a guy trying to make a fresh start and do right by his family. He works for a jerk named Boatright (Lou Perry, Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2), who owns much of the town and likes to make fun of Willy for being afraid. Boatright’s kid is something of a negative influence on Willy, but when he disappears it signals trouble between the adults. In a nice departure from genre tropes, Suzanne Savoy (I Come in Peace) plays Emily as a loving and understanding stepmom. There is no family drama until Mance grows tired of his son’s monster tales. Rounding out the cast is Ford Rainey (Halloween II) as T.C. and Michael Wren (Stone Cold) as Chief Sam John, who are all too familiar with the ancient curse.
When The Cellar was completed, Tenney’s film was seen as a moderate success, but the producers felt they could improve upon it. Six months after production wrapped yet another director was brought in to shoot additional material of Chief Sam John talking to Willy about Native American spirituality and mystical properties while sitting around a campfire. The scenes add nothing but long-winded jibber jabber. Child actors grow pretty fast and Miller looks noticeably different in the new footage. Other changes include a new score and a lengthy voiceover narration set against stock footage racing across desert landscapes that bookend the picture. Some existing scenes have been recut and repositioned, most notably the sequence of T.C. as a child facing the monster. Both versions of the film are included on this disc and Tenney’s is the way to go. The Cellar is a flawed but entertaining movie that at the time would have served as a decent rental or time filler on late-night cable and today serves as excellent streaming fodder.
Video and Audio:
The original camera negative has received a 2K scan and restoration presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for both cuts, with additional scenes scanned from the director’s original 35mm lab print. Picture quality impresses with strong clarity and detail in both open landscapes and the more confined cellar locations. Colors pop and black levels are rock-solid with plenty of information on display in the scenes under the house.
A DTS-HD MA 2.0 gets the job done with clear dialogue and atmospheric sound effects. Music cues are well-balanced and never intrusive and there are no signs of distortion. Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
Kevin Tenney is joined by actors Patrick Kilpatrick and Suzanne Savoy for an audio commentary on the Director’s Cut (84 minutes). The conversation is light-hearted and nostalgic with the team reflecting on the production and how everyone became involved. They talk about the switch in directors and how everything improved once Tenney took over. There are fond memories of the cast and crew and gratitude that this version of the film is finally available for the first time.
Tenney, Kilpatrick and Savoy return for an audio commentary over the Producer’s Cut (86 minutes) in which they react to the numerous changes made to the film. Their conversation sounds like an extension of the previous commentary with little repetition of information. While they all agree this cut is inferior, Tenney appreciates that this is the version most people have seen and it has its own fans, so he is reluctant to pooh-pooh it too hard.
Kevin Tenney delivers a thoughtful introduction to his cut of the film (2 minutes).
From Chicken Shit to Chicken Salad, Unearthing the Lost Cellar (46 minutes) is a retrospective documentary tracing the production history featuring interviews with Tenney, Kilpatrick and Savoy joined by producer Steve Berman, creature creator Kevin Brennan and original composer Dennis Tenney. There is a lot of interesting information covered with topics ranging from script changes, location shooting and Brennan’s embarrassment over the look of the monster. They talk about the edits made and the VHS release as well as the film’s legacy.
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