The Cellar Door
Monterey // R // $24.95 // April 8, 2008
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted February 11, 2008
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The Cellar Door:

Herman is a misunderstood man, doughy, beyond balding and kind-of quiet. That quiet bit is probably a good idea, because Herman, with all his minor faults, can't seem to find a good woman. A good woman to trap in his cellar and read to while he collects stool samples that is! Oh my, what a strange man is Herman, and what a strange little film is The Cellar Door - a film that dares to tie the torture porn genre together with a hardcore musical retort to that old nursery rhyme that begins, 'say say oh playmate, come out and play with me.'

The Cellar Door opens in Saving Private Ryan style with an impossible to watch sequence as Herman tracks down one of his runaway brides. By using 90-degree shutters on the cameras while filming (standard filming techniques use 180-degree shutters) a hyper-crisp, ultra-jittery picture with excruciating detail is created. Combine this with herky-jerky, fast-cut editing and the most harrowing action of the entire movie, and you have a tense, nerve-wracking opening that represents an empty promise.

Herman (James Dumont) must find a new playmate to slide down his cellar door, which he does in his usual right-out-in-the-open fashion. Soon his new honey Rudy (Michelle Tomlinson) is safely ensconced in an inescapable wooden cage (I did real good in shop! Says Herman) and The Cellar Door turns into an extended riff on the 'two trapped people get to know each other' motif often used in TV sitcoms, before more improbably bold slayings result in a cheap-gore-with-high-pretensions ending that will leave you rolling down the wedding aisle.

The Cellar Door, for better or worse, doesn't slather on the cruelty and gore like most torture porn movies. I personally am a bit tired of watching mean men victimize women, so that's a bit of a blessing. But Herman's not without his mean and weird side; withholding food, aggressively collecting blood samples and the like. But he's really kind of a softy. It's the main fault with the movie. Aside from the opening moments, Herman never rises above teddy-bear-in-killer's-clothing. You can see (and it's spelled out in the extras) that Dumont and Tomlinson are having a great time, play-acting like old friends. When Rudy tries mentally seducing Herman with chocolate cake, or Herman sings to her because he can't get to sleep, or reads to her from a book, you'll feel like you're watching an unedited episode of Saved By The Bell instead of a horror movie. There's barely concealed warmth and humor behind Herman and Rudy's antagonistic eyes, and the script doesn't build up enough psychic tension or cruelty to raise The Cellar Door above the level of a well-executed lark.

Some semi-exuberant gore is thrown about in the last minutes to ameliorate viewers, but even it is somewhat over-eager and unconvincing. The Cellar Door probably doesn't want to fit into the torture porn genre, but it's the closest fit. That said, torture porn with a nice-guy protagonist who's friends with his victim, denies her chocolate cake, and never comes close to letting us in on why he does what he does, doesn't really make the nut. I couldn't feel the fear, but I could feel the love, which I'm pretty sure is not the desired result.


Open The Cellar Door to a nice looking 16 x 9 widescreen anamorphic transfer, with vibrant colors, deep blacks, and (especially in the opening and closing sequences) super crisp images. It's a beautifully shot film, too, with some nicely creative camera work in close quarters. I noticed one instance of conspicuous gradation problems during a gauzy transition shot, but it was the only compression problem that stood out.

Stereo and 5.1 Surround Sound Audio tracks are available. The stereo track was nice and clear, without too much tricky audio placement. Sounds range from a whisper to a scream, and everything is clean and well recorded.

An 8-minute Interview with the Actors sequence shows how nice, normal and happy-go-lucky our two stars, Dumont and Tomlinson are. They cover the usual bases concerning what the shoot was like, how they prepared for their roles, and what they think of the story. Mostly our notions of how likeable and easy-going they both are become reinforced - character traits that, unfortunately, showed through the grimy subject matter. Another 8-minute Interview with the Director of Photography and Editor represents a slightly more esoteric pair of subjects to tackle. Their jobs are related, but they don't really work together. The Original Trailer and other Previews join a goofy 3-minute horror trivia text primer titled Horror on the Silver Screen that contains not much new that horror buffs don't already know.

Final Thoughts:
The Cellar Door won three awards from the Shriekfest film festival, proving that attendees to that festival are a soft touch. A bit of gore and some mild cruelty can't conceal that the actors involved were all having too good a time to 'go to the dark place.' Script-wise, there isn't much of a dark place to go; Herman's motives are hinted at (jilted at the altar, maybe?) but he doesn't seem too bothered by it. Taking fingernail clippings and reading trashy novels don't make much of a murderer, (but that baseball bat in the parking lot thing, that's another matter) and The Cellar Door ends up an amiable time-waster. For my money, the intended audience should lower expectations, and if so inclined, Rent It.

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