Transmissions to Earth: CELLAR DWELLER (1988)
As CELLAR DWELLER (1988) opens, we go back to 30 years ago, when a comic book artist named Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs) is drawing some pages of a monster comic book. Looking for some evil-sounding dialogue, he searches through the pages of an ancient book of spells for something cool, and when he says one particular spell aloud, the demon he’s drawing becomes real, as does its woman victim. He grabs the artwork he was working on and sets it on fire, and the monster screams and dies in front of him. Unfortunately, Childress sets himself on fire by accident, and dies as well.
In present day (30 years later), young artist Whitney Taylor (Debrah Mullowney) comes to the house, which is now a bohemian art school called the Throckmorton Institute of Art. Whitney is obsessed with the old EC-style comic book that Childress drew called Cellar Dweller – which looks a lot like old issues of EC’s Tales of the Crypt. Somehow, she convinced the “board of directors” to accept her on as a student, even though the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo, who most people know as Lily Munster from THE MUNSTERS) looks down her nose at someone who wants to be a comic book artist and admits, if it was up to her, she never would have accepted Whitney as a student.
Mrs. Briggs gives Whitney a tour of the place, introducing her to the other students, including Phillip Lemley (Brian Robbins), an abstract painter; Lisa (Cheryl Ann Wilson), a performance artist; Amanda (Pamela Bellwood) who is making “video verite” art with a clunky video camera (that looks ancient now) and Norman Meshelski (Vince Edwards) who thinks he’s some kind of detective and wants to be the next Raymond Chandler (he writes using an old manual typewriter, and likes to act out scenes, so I guess this is a writer’s colony, too). During the tour, they pass a locked door which Mrs. Briggs explains leads to the cellar, where Colin Childress allegedly killed an innocent woman and then set himself on fire 30 years before, but Whitney is sure he wasn’t guilty. Mrs. Briggs tells her the room is off limits.
The school is a weird mixture of an artist colony and a school. There are classes and critique sessions, but most of the time, the students just make art in their rooms in this house which is in the middle of nowhere with no television or other distractions.
Right off the bat, Whitney and Amanda resume their old rivalry (they were enemies in their previous art school), but some of the other students aren’t so bad. She strikes up friendships with Phillip and Lisa. Whitney is also not a fan of Mrs. Briggs, who looks down on her and is clearly in cahoots with Amanda to discredit her.
When Whitney hears strange noises coming from the basement, she goes down there, even though she was told not to, and finds a bunch of Childress’s artwork and supplies (including that old book of spells, called “Curses of the Ancient Dead”). Despite the fire 30 years before, you couldn’t tell it by looking at the basement, which appears to have been untouched by the blaze that killed Childress.
Whitney insists on being allowed to live and work down in the basement, where her hero once drew his comics. At first, Mrs. Briggs is furious that Whitney went down there when she was told it was off limits, but she eventually relents, letting Whitney have the basement as her personal studio. But she also has Amanda film Whitney down there when she’s not aware – part of some weird scheme to doctor footage to make it look like Whitney is a plagiarist (which doesn’t make a lot of sense).
It’s down in the basement that Whitney’s work becomes more passionate, and we realize that what she draws begins coming true when she draws a page where Amanda is attacked and killed by the demon we saw in the beginning – and it really happens! In fact, the demon starts to kill off everyone in the house, one by one, until Whitney realizes what is going on. After a while, she doesn’t even have to draw the pages for them to happen for real – the pages begin to draw themselves! And the demon begins to gain more and more control over its existence in our world.
Will Whitney be able to stop the hellish monster before it kills her and all her friends? To find out, you’ll have to find a copy of CELLAR DWELLER.
Director John Carl Buechler, who also gave us such movies as TROLL (1986) (not be confused with its sequel – in name only – the camp classic, TROLL 2), as well as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988) and GHOULIES III: GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE (1991), was also in charge of the mechanical and makeup effects for CELLAR DWELLER (his credits as a Special Effects guy way outnumber his credits as a director, including doing effects for everything from GHOULIES, 1985 to Stuart Gordon’s FROM BEYOND , 1986, to DR. MOREAU’S HOUSE OF PAIN, 2004). The monster effects for CELLAR DWELLER are actually kind of cool, despite the low budget. The demon/monster of the title looks like the product of stop-motion animation at times, and at other times looks like a mixture of makeup and animatronic effects. The monster looks a little stiff at times, but is above-average for this kind of stuff.
The script by Don Mancini (who also wrote practically all of the Chucky movies, starting with the original CHILD’S PLAY, also from 1988) is incredibly silly. The whole concept of what Whitney draws coming to life has been done before, and here seems pretty goofy, in the way it completely defies logic. And there really aren’t any scares to be found.
The acting is okay. Lead actress Debrah Mullowney (who would later be billed as Debrah Farentino) is actually quite striking and does a decent job, despite the silly dialogue and laughable motivations she has to convey. Mullowney started in television and CELLAR DWELLER was her first feature film. She later appeared on such shows as NYPD BLUE and the SyFy Channel series EUREKA.
You might remember Brian Robbins from TV shows like HEAD OF THE CLASS (1986 – 1991). He went on to become a producer and director, most recently directing the Eddie Murphy comedy, A THOUSAND WORDS (2012).
As for the rest of the cast, you might remember Pamela Bellwood (Amanda) from the 80s prime time soap opera DYNASTY, and Vince Edwards, who plays the most annoying character, the private eye wannabe Norman, became a TV star in the 60s with doctor shows like BEN CASEY (1961 – 1966) and MATT LINCOLN (1970 – 1971). Yvonne De Carlo, probably the biggest name star in CELLAR DWELLER, appeared in tons of Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s before becoming a household name in THE MUNSTERS TV show (1964 – 1966).
Don’t go into CELLAR DWELLER expecting something serious or compelling, but it is an entertaining little flick if you’re open to low-budget 80s horror films with more than a touch of camp.
© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares