Color, 1986, 84 mins. 20 secs. / 85 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by Kevin Tenney
Starring Patrick Kilpatrick, Chris Miller, Suzanne Savoy, Ford Rainey, Michael Wren, Don Collier
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After firing up a generation of VHS-loving horror kids with his pair of instant cult favorites in the latter half of the '80s, Witchboard and Night of the Demons, director Kevin S. Tenney (who's dropped the middle initial now) took an odd detour on the way to his next self-started film, Witchtrap. A low-budget monster movie called The Cellar had lost its director and needed to be salvaged in a hurry, so he came on board for what would be a sort of kid-friendly PG-13 mixture of latex mayhem and Native American mysticism. What ended up being released was a far cry from what Tenney had intended, with his original cut (which screened only once) completely overhauled with a new music score, extensive recutting, and new, interminable stock footage sequences added as wraparounds with droning narration about nothing in particular. Initially shot in 1986, that mangled end product skulked onto VHS in 1989 from Hemdale and barely made a blip outside of die hards curious to see what else was out there from the director of Night of the Demons. Fortunately Tenney saved his existing print of his cut, and that far more enjoyable incarnation finally saw the light of day in 2021 on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome (with the theatrical cut included if you feel like comparing them).
In the dusty, tumbleweed-laden town of Compassion, Texas, a malignant force erupts in 1932 that ignites a fire and drags a man to his death in the earth in front of his traumatized son, who padlocks the evil beneath the house with a woven talisman. Flash forward to the present(-ish) day as couple Mance and Emily Cashen (Kilpatrick and Savoy) move to that same house for his new job, with their baby girl April in tow. The jittery T.C. (Rainey) seems to know a lot more than he's saying when he shows off the place, and that's confirmed when Mance's son, Willy (Miller), arrives soon after from Chicago and realizes there's some nasty indeed lurking in the cellar. Unfortunately his family doesn't believe him despite the overwhelming evidence, so it's up to Willy and local Chief Sam John (Wren) to ward off the monstrous secret before it unleashes another wave of destruction.
At least in its original form, this is a modest but entertaining monster movie with some nice isolated desert atmosphere, a sparingly used but effective prosthetic monster, and just enough restraint to make this suitable for viewers as young as preteens, ideally paired up with something like The Gate. The very limited budget shows all the way through with a functional cast hardly designed to lure in casual viewers, and some of Tenney's oddball humor and knack for a good shock still shine through despite the gun for hire nature of the project itself. The far more commonly seen theatrical cut isn't a total waste with some of the original merits intact, but the piecemeal soundtrack and heavy recutting take their toll right from the outset with an entire opening that makes little sense and kicks things right off on the wrong foot.
The Vinegar Syndrome release sports new scans of both versions of the film, with the director's cut serving as the first option and featuring a 2K scan from Tenney's personal 35mm lab print. It's imperfect with some minor specks and signs of abrasion here and there, but just getting this at all is pretty miraculous and generally quite nice for the most part with good color. The theatrical cut is a 2K scan from the 35mm camera negative and looks absolutely pristine, which should make it worth a peek at least once. Surprisingly, the director's cut was mixed in Ultra Stereo and sounds great with dynamic channel separation throughout that makes this a real treat for the ears. The theatrical version still has an Ultra Stereo logo but is in DTS-HD MA mono here, sounding a lot weaker by comparison. Both options come with optional English SDH subtitles. Tenney's all over this release including contributing a bemused video intro (1m34s) and joining both Savoy and Kilpatrick for different audio commentaries over both cuts of the film. The director's cut commentary is definitely the more informative as they recall their positive experiences working together, the challenges of picking up shooting on scenes that had already been partially shot by someone else in a handful of cases, and the pluses and minuses of shooting in Tucson. The theatrical track is a lot looser as they swap more production anecdotes and mostly use it to take down the vandalism committed against the film, which also makes for pretty lively listening on its own. The one video extra here is a hefty one: "From Chicken Shit to Chicken Salad: Unearthing the Lost Cellar" (46m12s), a lighthearted look at the making (and unmaking) of the film with Tenney, Kilpatrick, Savoy, producer Steve Berman, creature creator Kevin Brennan, and composer Dennis Tenney separately recalling their careers to that point, the production process, the less than ideal creation of the main monster, and the familial aspect of the film that appealed to them even if the final result didn't quite go as planned.
Theatrical Cut (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on May 6, 2021