Director Brendan Muldowney: The Cellar & atmospheric horror

Brendan Muldowney set out to create a horror film based on atmosphere instead of gore with his award-winning short film, 2004’s The Ten Steps — the template for a creepy story about a cursed house with a mythological basement was put into place. After 18 years, the wait for a feature-length film to expand upon the short is over, as The Cellar arrives in theaters and streams on Shudder on April 15.

Written and directed by Muldowney, The Cellar is a unique horror that uses mathematical principles, mythology, and quantum physics to enhance the plot rather than blood and guts. When a young daughter goes missing in the cellar of her house, it’s up to her mother, played by Elisha Cuthbert, to figure out the numerical clues and rescue her before she’s gone for good. Muldowney spoke with about the atmospheric concept, why he gravitates toward horror, and how they found the perfect house in Roscommon, Ireland to serve as the backdrop for the film.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.

steven stands outside the entrance to the basement in a scene from the cellar

: The Cellar is based on one of your successful short films: 2004’s The Ten Steps. What was the original idea and concept for that short and why revisit it all these years later?

Well, you know, the short film is basically the first part of the feature, and it would have started though much quicker. It started with babysitting and ended with counting down the steps. The idea inspirations were many, but I can pin it down to two. There was a comic I read years ago called The Thirteenth Floor. It’s about a tower block with an elevator, which was like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. [The tower block] had been built without a thirteenth floor due to superstition, and this elevator, if it didn’t like that someone was dealing drugs or hustling to the residents, it would take them to this alternate, sort of thirteenth floor, and punish them.

What was an important influence was Robert Wise’s The Haunting. I had always wanted to make a horror film that was all about atmosphere with no gore. So that was really the inspiration. And then, of course, the film, you know, took off. It was the most successful short we ever did. It won best short at the Sitges Fantastic Film Festival, which is a hardcore horror audience, and it won best short at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, which was running at the time. So we realized that had a very broad appeal… and also [saw] the comments online on different platforms. You know, people saying, “What happens next?” So that was where we slowly started to come around. It’s taken many years, but we did it. We always had it in our minds that it would make for a good feature-length film.

ellie stands in front of her father brian in a scene from the cellar

The Cellar puts a spin on the “creepy basement with an evil spirit” trope with the addition of math and mythology and even quantum physics. Have you always been interested in those subjects, and how did those concepts eventually become such an integral part of this story?

Well, you know, a lot of the mythology in this is hokum. It’s nonsense, really. But, having said that, it’s there for a fun ride. It’s there for a detective story. But while I say that, I have always been interested in it. In my second feature, Love Eternal, I wouldn’t say there’s quantum physics, but there is a sense of wonder at the universe. You know, without getting too sidetracked here, there was a quote I heard years ago, and it was when humans became conscious, it was the universe becoming conscious of itself. We always found it a very profound task.

Anyway, long story short, I have always been interested in quantum physics, but I really don’t understand it. I just like reading it. Even the small bits that open my mind are so profound. It nearly replaces religion for me because it is something we don’t know the answer to. I feel small.

Before it, I tried many different types of mythology here. I tried Irish mythology. There were Druids and Balor, the one-eyed king of the Fomorians, who was in this at one stage. But very quickly, I came around to the idea that it should be mathematically based, because it just was so perfect. And that’s where, you know, like this idea of string theory and dimensions came in. The other mythology in it is just to have a cool monster.

The main character, Keira, is the head of what I would call a huge advertising firm. She’s manipulating the public perception of her clients.

Yes, not just clients, but also the vulnerable people she advertises to.

Exactly. But inside the house, the roles are being reversed. She’s really the one being manipulated by this spirit in the cursed house. From your perspective, do you think this is karma? Perhaps this is Keira being punished for things she’s done in her past.

It’s very interesting you pick up on that because I tried many different versions [of the film]. This one was an extension of the short. The other was a prologue of the short, and a new family moved in. With that new family, the protagonist would have been another young daughter, and I found it very hard to send an innocent young woman to hell. It finally hit that it’s better if it’s a mother looking for her daughter. I went, “OK, but I need something else. Well, what?”

I’m going to give her a career that’s not exactly the nicest thing in the world. It then felt so much easier to end the film where the film goes. And you know, when you say karma, it was just easier because I always knew that’s how I wanted the film to end. So, it was about finding a character that you can do that to. But also, maybe you can empathize with her because I do feel that, sort of halfway through, she maybe gets an insight into really her life and her lifestyle, especially during that second visit to the advertising office.

keira looks tense as she stands at the bottom of the stairs in a scene from the cellar

Other than superhero films, you can make a case that horror films are arguably the most consistent and successful genre in terms of box office success, critical acclaim, and the number of people seeing them. Viewers seem willing to give horror more of a shot than, say, an adult drama. Why do you think this genre reaches so many people and resonates so well with the audience?

Well, it’s very hard to say that, because horror is such a broad spectrum. I love both ends of the spectrum. I love the most transgressive dark films like Martyrs. I really like hardcore horror. But equally, I remember, when there were video or DVD shops, I could easily go in and pick something not even mind-numbing but just as fun like Cherry Fallsfor example. With this mad concept, it’s sort of based around the Scream idea that, if you’re a virgin, you’ll be killed. So, they decide to have a big party and they’ll all lose their virginity. It’s a slasher movie, and it’s fun. I can’t even remember the film now, but I’m using it as an example.

I love both, but they’re both very different, you know? There’s comedy in these films. … “Why do people like the dark, transgressive stuff?” I myself like it because I really feel alive with that stuff. I think it really can be very challenging, and it can ask very interesting questions about human nature and about the world. On the other end, I just think it’s fun. My daughter’s 10. She’s half Spanish. We call it “pica-scary.” Pica is like spicy in Spanish. So we call it pica-scary, which is like fun-scary. You know, everyone likes a bit of fun-scary.

How did Elisha Cuthbert get involved in the project?

Well, the other lead, Eion Macken (Resident Evil: The Final Chapter), I’ve known for years. He was in my very first feature, so I knew him quite well. He came on board, and his agent is Elisha’s agent. It was that simple. So we were able to get this script to her and, very quickly, I was on a Zoom call with Elisha. We just got on so well. She’s really easy to work with. She’s great, you know. I think she wanted to [do it]. She hasn’t done a horror film in a while. She dug the script and then, suddenly, before you know it, in the midst of COVID, she was coming over here to quarantine for two weeks.

brian stands at the bottom of the stairs and looks up in a scene from the cellar

In terms of the actual house, did it take a while to find the perfect house in Ireland, and what made you settle on this one in Roscommon?

One of the financing bodies is called The WRAP Fund. You can access financing from it if you shoot in the west of Ireland in certain areas, about six counties. Not only do they have six counties, but they’ve been using a lot of their other counties, and they pointed us towards Roscommon. So, you know, we had to look in Roscommon, and we were lucky that was such a brilliant house there.

Did you have to build a new set for the cellar itself? Were you able to shoot right in the house?

Well, there was some building and, obviously, the cellar itself is built. I was always looking for a house when we did our scouting in Roscommon. I was always looking for something that had a long corridor leading to a door. I never found that. But when I walked into that house, it had a big open hallway, and then it had a big long corridor that led to another turn on the left, but it had a door to a dining room.

We looked at it and we thought, “You know what? We’ll just build our own fake sort of door there, the cellar door, and inside it, we can have a sort of cupboard… somewhere for coats or something.”  You have to turn left to go down and then we’ll pick that up. We’ll build a whole cellar in a separate set.

There were a couple of other things in the playroom. There was a cupboard there. We had to build all that as well, but that was really about it. And obviously, the void, which is where the end is set. It was a whole green screen studio. Apart from that, the house delivered [almost] everything. The only thing it didn’t deliver was a kitchen I had written into the script. In this [house]it’s a guesthouse. It has sort of an industrial kitchen that would look like chefs worked in it. So, I couldn’t really use it, and I would have liked the kitchen to have been the focal point for the family. But look, you can’t get everything when you’re working on a low budget.

You did a medieval film (Pilgrimage) a few years ago. The Cellar is a horror flick. What are you working on next? Is there any specific genre or topic you’re interested in exploring further?

I’m working on a revisionist folk horror where St. Patrick tries to convert a sect of druids. It’s ultra-violent. I’m going back to my old ways.

The Cellar will release in theaters and stream on Shudder on April 15.

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