Cellar Dweller is a goofy creature-feature that, despite it’s bold attempts to scare up an audience, simply faded away. Originally released thirty years ago, this campy monster flick has quite a few notable names in front of and behind the camera with plenty of nods to other horror works. At a short running time of only around 80 minutes, Cellar Dweller has a style and silly premise that a certain kind of horror aficionado should have plenty of fun with.
Cellar Dweller stars Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters), Debrah Farentino (Stephen King’s Storm of the Century), Brian Robbins, and Pamela Bellwood (TV’s Dynasty). The film was written by Child’s Play creator Don Mancini under the name Kit Du Bois and was produced by legendary Charles Band (the Puppetmaster series). John Carl Buechler directed and also worked on the creature effects. In addition to Cellar Dweller, Buechler is the director of Troll and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, among others. Buechler has a long list of special and visual effects credits including Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and Hatchet.
Cellar Dweller was released in the UK February 15 1988 and eventually saw a US release as a direct-to-video title by New World Video in September of the same year. It wasn’t until 2013 when Cellar Dweller finally found its way to DVD via Scream Factory as one of their All-Night Horror Marathon DVDs. I have vague memories of watching Cellar Dweller on late-night syndicated TV. I remember the movie scaring me back then, but other than a pretty clear memory of the monster and the comic book images, there wasn’t much else from that initial viewing that has stuck with me. This past weekend, I sat down and re-watched the film for the first time after nearly three decades.
The movie starts with a lengthy intro that takes place in the basement of a secluded house. The sketch of the titular monster is brought to life by Jeffrey Combs’s character, Colin. After the monster kills the first victim, it doesn’t take long for Colin to destroy the creature by burning the comic book pages. Flash forward thirty years, and the house is now an art school with a handful of students in residence. The heroine, Whitney Taylor, arrives on a dark and stormy night that is complete with 1980s style lightning FX. In combination with the scenario of her arrival, there are some style choices with the framing, lighting, and set design that reminded me of Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
Whitney is an artist with a penchant for horror. The walls of her room are covered in posters, including a one-sheet for Re-Animator, Troll, Ghost Town, and Dolls. Whitney wants to recreate Colins’s Cellar Dweller comics and winds up working from the basement where she accidentally brings the creature back to life. Needless to say, the students of the art school are then killed off one by one.
Is it scary like I remember? Not in the least. There is very little tension, and the kill scenes are intercut with sketched images from the comic book panels full of blood and gore. However, there is a lot to like about the movie. It is obvious that the proceedings are never to be taken seriously. Instead, the story unfolds with a tongue-in-cheek tone that allows you to sit back and have fun with what you’re watching. Due to the fact that Whitney is able to control both the creature’s actions and who he kills, things could have easily taken a darker and more serious tone. Personally, I’m glad it didn’t go that route.
Does the creature design hold up after all of these years? Yes! I loved it. Although the monster is never particularly “scary”, he does have a one-of-a-kind look about him, and the filmmakers make the most of showing him onscreen. In fact, the creature almost has a cute and funny look to him at times. The design kind of reminds me something similar to a Goosebumps-style creature. And, now that I’m thinking about it, the entire running time sort of plays out like an adult version of a Goosebumps episode.
In the end, Cellar Dweller offers a fun 80 minutes of 1980s era creature-feature entertainment. The story touches on the age-old, controversial topic of violent entertainment inspiring real-life violence, and the idea of Whitney resurrecting a 30 year-old comic actually works pretty well in today’s reboot mania. I’m glad I watched all those years ago, and I’m glad I watched it again. Truthfully, I’m kind of sad that the movie wasn’t a bigger hit when it first came out. It would have been a blast to see more of the monster in a long line of direct-to-video sequels. If you’re into campy monster movies, Cellar Dweller was tailor made for you to enjoy.
Have you seen Cellar Dweller? Let us know what you thought in the comments below and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group!