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Just how much White Out is in one of those little bottles?

I believe that I truly discovered my love for B-movies and other “cheesy” genre films in the late 80’s. It was the beginning of my pre-teen years when I finally started living in areas with cable or video stores within walking distance of my house. It was also at this time that I first started developing my lifelong tendency to be a “night owl”. Since my mother had started letting me watch pretty much whatever I wanted by this time, I’d always find myself stepping away from looking for Dracula’s rib in Castlevania 2 for just long enough to watch Basket Case or Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama on the USA Network, or Ghoulies 2 and Killer Klowns From Outer Space on HBO.

Somewhere buried in all of these movies was Cellar Dweller. After seeing that it would be airing on one of the cable channels at midnight on a Friday, I remember deciding to stay up and watch it based solely on the name. “Something lives in the cellar? RADICAL!!!!”. I think we still said “radical” in 1988. If at any point I said “tubular”, then I deserved to be taken out into the street and beaten. Honestly, I didn’t need much reason to stay up and watch a monster movie at midnight on the weekends. I still don’t.

As I’m sure that I had a short attention span at that age, I was very pleased to be presented with not only images of comic books, but of the titular creature himself within the first 5 minutes! Sweet! My 11/12-year-old brain loved those things!  Who are we kidding? My 40-year-old mind loves those things. Just throw in some of those “titulars” I was talking about earlier and I think I may have had my first wet dream. What’s that you say? We DO get a couple gratuitous nudity shots? Oh my. Excuse me for a few minutes.

Um.. sorry about that. Where were we?

Cellar Dweller is a 1988 monster flick from monster maestro John Carl Buechler, director of Friday the 13th Part VII and Troll, and the FX guy on films such as Ghoulies, From Beyond, and A Nightmare on Elm St 4: The Dream Master. The film was written by Don Mancini, who would later go on to write the Child’s Play series. Cellar Dweller is also part of the last batch of films released by Charlie Band’s Empire Pictures line. I will gladly admit my bias as there are not many Empire releases that aren’t fondly remembered by this reviewer.

The film starts 30 years in the past, presumably during the mid to late 1950’s. Re-Animator star and Empire Pictures’ regular Jeffrey Combs portrays “Colin Childress”, the writer and illustrator of the popular horror comic, “Cellar Dweller”. As the movie opens, Childress is in his cellar studio working on the latest issue of the series. Childress reaches into a wooden chest and pulls out an old, leather-bound book with a pentagram burnt into its cover. The book is clearly ancient, and while Childress uses the mysterious and dread-inspiring passages found within as inspiration for his latest spooky tale, its evident that he’s more than unaware of its true evil power. That said, it’s never truly explained how he obtained it in the first place.

As Childress puts the book down, we can see something standing up behind him. That “something”, of course, is the Cellar Dweller. While some movies choose to prolong the suspense, a majority of the monster films from the mid-to-late 80’s were all about showing you the creature early and then beating you over the head with it for the next 70-90 minutes. Personally, I couldn’t have been happier about this (especially as a monster lovin’ 12 year old), even if the creature does look like a roided out version of the bear from the Snuggle fabric softener commercials. Clutched in the creature’s arms is a young woman barely clad in a ripped nightgown, just as Childress had drawn into his comic.

Childress flees from the room, but stops in the adjoining hallway. There, he grabs an ax from the rack on the wall. Childress returns to the cellar to find that the creature has killed the girl, leaving her lifeless body on the floor. The creature reappears from the shadows and swats at Colin, knocking him into his desk. This causes the evil book to fall into the still open chest conveniently placed directly below. How the chest then locks itself is not explained.

In bumping into his desk, Colin also knocks over a jar filled with paint thinner, spilling it onto the cellar floor. Hoping to dispel the creature, Childress sets fire to his illustrations. The creature is banished, but in the process, Childress accidentally ignites the spilled paint thinner, which sets the house on fire and burns him to death.

This finally leads us to the film’s opening credits, which features the same brightly colored illustrated style seen in other Empire films such as Re-Animator and From Beyond. The film’s opening theme, orchestrated by Carl Dante, fits perfectly along sides the scores and themes that Richard Band provided for a large number of Empire releases.

The film reopens in modern times. And by “modern”, I mean “mid/late 80’s”. Aspiring comic artist Whitney Taylor (Deborah Farentino, here credited as Deborah Mullowney –  Syfy’s Eureka) has just arrived for her residency at the Throckmorton Institute for the Arts, an artist colony now occupying of Childress’s former home. Somehow, the house suffered minimal damage in the fire years earlier. Whitney hopes to begin work on a new comic inspired by the original “Cellar Dweller” comic. “Inspired” is an incredibly loose term as she’s basically continuing from where Childress left off.

The colony is run by Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo, TV’s “Lily Munster”). Briggs quickly makes it clear that she is not a fan of Whitney’s choice of medium, dismissing her work as “mere cartoons” and “populist tripe”. She openly discloses that Whitney was only admitted because the school’s board of directors voted her in, which Briggs believes is some silly nostalgia caused by Whitney’s desire to continue Childress’s work in the same house that he “went crazy and murdered that poor girl in”.

We’re soon  introduced to the other “artists” at the colony. This includes, Meshelski (Vince Edwards, TV’s Dr. Ben Casey), a retired detective turned wannabe crime novelist; performance artist Lisa (Miranda Wilson, here credited as Cheryl Ann Wilson –  TV’s Santa Barbara and Days of Our Lives); and Amanda (Pamela Bellwood, TV’s Dynasty), a long time rival of Whitney’s with no real discernible talent of her own.

And finally, there’s “Phillip”, an expressionism painter. “Phillip” is played by Brian Robbins, known for his roles in Chud 2 and on the TV series “Head of the Class“. Brian would later become a writer, director, and producer. Robbins was responsible for the successful television shows All That, Smallville, and One Tree Hill, but was also behind the notorious string of Eddie Murphy’s worst films, such as Norbit, Meet Dave, and A Thousand Words. These films alone may make Robbins even more of a horrible monster than the Cellar Dweller itself.

Eventually, Whitney makes her way into the cellar that Chidress used as his studio. Whitney soon finds the ancient book, still sitting untouched in the locked chest where it has been for the last 30 years. Determined to continue her work in the same space that her idol created his, Whitney manages to convince Briggs to let her use the cellar as her studio, telling the spiteful old woman that being “out of the way” downstairs allows Briggs to give the open bedroom to a “more talented” artist. In a bit of self promotion, Whitney immediately sets to covering the walls of the cellar with posters from other Empire movies. She also starts experimenting with the book more, even including symbols from the book in her own art.

The Cellar Dweller is soon released from the confinements of the comic pages and proceeds to tear and chew his way through the cast members. While the killings themselves never get too explicit, the scenes of  the creature eating his victims does get pretty bloody and gruesome. We even get to watch him swallow an eyeball from one of his victims. And just when you are about ready to cringe, Buechler chooses to hit you with a close up of the creature smiling and batting his eyes…. and there’s just a little bit of bloody dribble coming from his mouth…. like a big, fuzzy, murderous koala bear.

Seriously, how can you be mad at that face? Maybe if you just gave him a bath and trim his nails. Get him a nice new collar too.

And that, my friends, is the biggest problem with the Cellar Dweller.  He’s just a little too cuddly to be ever be truly scary. You kinda get the feeling that he might not rip your lungs from your chest if you just rub his belly or scratch him behind the ears.

Even this guy is a little more threatening than ol’ CD.

Despite a monster that’s a little too hokey to be a franchise player, and some serious gaps in logic (What happens to all the blood and body parts left over from one of CD’s attacks?), Cellar Dweller aims to be nothing more than bloody, B-grade fun. And in that regard, it succeeds. You could find much worse ways to kill 75 mins. Fans of Buechler’s other work, such as Troll & the Ghoulies series should be pleased as this carries the same darkly comedic tone to it, only to much gorier effect.

Cellar Dweller was pretty much left to VHS obscurity, with the only copies available being tape-to-disc rips of varying quality being sold by convention vendors and online collectors, before finally receiving a legitimate DVD release from Scream Factory. A blu-ray of the film was released by Scream Factory shortly after (paired with 1988’s Catacombs, which will be receiving its own review on this site in the next couple of weeks.) Per a disclaimer at the opening of the film, the original negatives were lost, so the blu-ray was source from the only know existing print. While the blu-ray is a large visual improvement over previous releases, it still features its own share of blemishes and flaws. That said, fans of the film will surely be pleased by the visual upgrade.

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