Is there artistry in grade-Z horror?: A critical review of “Cellar Dweller” (1988)

Why do people keep giving Jeffrey Combs copies of the “Necronomicon”? I know better. You know better. But some people just can’t figure this out. At least, this appears to be the dilemma at the start of “Cellar Dweller,” a late 80s, direct-to-video horror schlocker I found myself watching the other day on Comet TV (arguably my new favorite channel–it’s your one-stop-shop for cheesy horror). Before we’re through, the film will (inadvertently?) make some statements about art–and tally a body count.

Despite his high listing in the cast list, Jeffrey Combs is on screen for about six minutes, playing (the delightfully named) Colin Childress, a comic book artist who summons a monstrous creature–presumably the titular Cellar Dweller–with his sketches. Despite banishing the beast, Childress ends up killing someone and burning the basement down. Fast forward 30 years, and the house where Childress summoned the monster has become an artist retreat. Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino, “Storm of the Century”) heads to the retreat, which hosts a quirky cast of characters including Miranda Wilson as a nutty performance artist (I knew girls like that in college); Vince Edwards as a retired private detective who channels his experiences into detective fiction; Brian Robbins as a prerequisite 80s boytoy; and, most significantly, Pamela Bellwood as an old artistic rival and Yvone De Carlo (TV’s Lily Munster) as the no-nonsense head of the retreat. Taylor starts following in Childress’s footsteps and her drawings turn dangerous–when she draws people being gruesomely killed by the Cellar Dweller, those people end up being gruesomely killed by…well, you get it.

“Cellar Dweller” is no great shake. The transformations (there are a couple) are not good and the ending falls a little flat. However, the monster suit, while largely stationary, is good, the acting is decent and the script is not bad. It was written by Don Mancini (scripter of “Troll,” creator of the Chucky franchise and, most deliciously, writer of a few episodes of “Hannibal”), and the film feels a bit like an overlong episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” both in terms of scope and morality (Mancini would go on to pen at least one episode of the series). But the narrative is not the only thing that’s contained in the film.

It might be the fact that it was released direct-to-video, but “Cellar Dweller” has a claustrophobic element that works in its favor. Shots are not merely confined; they are curiously squared, as if director John Carl Buechler (“Troll” again and, later, a Friday the 13th franchise alum) tried to place the frames of the film in comic book panels. Even long shots are confined to squares. Look again at the shot of Taylor entering the artist’s colony–the straight lines of the trees make a stern border for the action. This comic book framing is important not just because of our protagonist’s profession, but also for the sake of the film’s definition of art.

The definition of art (one of my favorite philosophical subjects) is quite broad and inviting in “Cellar Dweller.” In the film, art can be painting, illustration, writing, performance and film. Mediums are also inclusive; at the retreat, artists work with canvas, comic books and cameras. What is art? “Cellar Dweller” takes a post-modern approach, suggesting that anything can be art given the way you do it (does that include “Cellar Dweller” itself?). But there is a trace of traditionalism. Over the course of the film, art appears to be what you feel and express–Taylor repeatedly talks about her desires spilling onto the page (and ending in the deaths of the a couple of her fellow artists). But Taylor is also in touch with some more primal force–the “imagination,” the Cellar Dweller itself proclaims. Far be it from me to apply Platonic theories of reality to “Cellar Dweller,” but it appears as though the film suggests that, to a certain degree, art comes from the inspiration given by a supernatural entity–what the ancients called genius.

All that said, is “Cellar Dweller” a good movie? No. But I think I’m something of a connoisseur of cheesy B-cinema. Some of it’s bad. Some of it’s so bad it’s good. And some of it approaches good. “Cellar Dweller” might just fall in to the latter category.

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