I’m on a hunt for the scariest movies of all time! I’ll be looking at films of any era, from any country, and then reviewing them based solely on how terrifying they are.
If you have a suggestion for a horror movie, please let me know on Twitter.
Please be advised, spoilers may lie ahead!!
The Cellar (1989)
Director: Kevin Tenney
Starring: Patrick Kilpatrick, Chris Miller
The 80s sure were a wonderful time to be a horror fan.
An absolute embarrassment of films were released; some affluential, others forgettable. But they all had this endearing sense of self-importance, puffing themselves up as the most horrifying thing you’ve ever seen.
Needless to say, The Cellar is firmly entrenched in the latter camp of significance, but is it actually frightening at all? I must confess, the sudden, jarring sound of a slamming door on the title card evoked a startled shout from me, so technically that makes it the scariest movie I’ve watched for this list.
(For the purpose of this article, I watched the director’s cut. I do hope to watch the theatrical cut at some point, complete with audio commentary detailing how much they hated it.)
The Cellar takes place in a remote corner of Texas, where newlyweds Mance and Emily Cashen have just purchased a property from a rather dodgy fellow who seems keen to get rid of it. When Mance’s son, Willy, comes to visit, he discovers the horrible secret lurking in the hidden cellar; a hideous monster created with the sole purpose of destruction.
That’s an abridged version, and really, it’s all you need to know. The full plot reeks of cultural appropriation and superfluous details that never pan out. The local Comanche chief warns Mance that the beast feeds off the souls of youths, putting his newborn baby at great risk, but this detail never proceeds past this point. The monster is a hungry boy, you see, and will just munch on whatever crosses its path.
Despite its cookie cutter premise, a lot of the characters are actually fairly solid for a film of this calibre, with Mance in particular descending from affable jokester to abusive father in alarming fashion.
The bulk of the movie is spent with Willy trying to prove the monster’s existence, and for some reason, this ten-year-old boy has infinite access to helpful weapons, from bear traps to electrodes and even a goddamn flamethrower. There is no particular drama to speak of in the proceedings, although the jump scares are well-timed. They’re predictable, and yet somehow they remain effective.
The cellar monster is kept obscured for the most part, limited to a webbed claw protruding from the murky water here and there. In the final act, we get to see it in all of its glory, and though it doesn’t really register as horrifying, it is, at the very least, an excellent model.
Its range of motion is clearly poor, but they make the most of its potential through tight camera angles and quick shots. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the same could be said for this flick as a whole: it is generic and formulaic, aiming low and subsequently meeting those goals in a satisfactory manner.
I walk away from it with an expectation that I will never think of it again. Nothing beyond that fucking title card, that is. That scared the shit out of me.
A paint-by-numbers monster flick that takes absolutely zero risks. For what it lacks in creativity or suspense, it makes up for with an impressive creature design and serviceable jump scares.
Watching this, I was reminded of the stern advice that Nance offers his son: “it’s silly to be afraid.”