Long live Empire Pictures; sure, they shone briefly in the ‘80s before bankruptcy and a rebirth as Full Moon, but there was some real talent and joy in a lot (okay, some) of those films – case in point: Cellar Dweller (1988), a straight up monster movie with no pretense beyond gore and gratuitous nudity in a tidy 78 minute package.
Take out the credits and you’re left with around 70 minutes; certainly not unusual in Band’s world, as a lot of the films he turned out were done on the cheap and very quickly. But occasionally a real talent would stop by (Stuart Gordon comes to mind) and stretch the limited resources into something worth a look or two. Enter John Carl Buechler, the late, lamented, legendary fx artist and burgeoning director (Troll) who, in pure Band style, had to film this in 10 days with very little money and a severely truncated schedule. Not to worry; there’s a sheen and sense of fun that makes Cellar Dweller a B-movie worth digging up.
We open with a prologue in which Empire vet (and possible contract stipulation) Jeffrey Combs, as an EC-style artist in the ‘50s conjures up the titular monster for inspiration for his titular comic. Things immediately head for worst and Combs tries to burn all of his comics in the hopes of dispatching the monster; it works, but he also manages to kill himself in the process.
Flash forward 30 years and aspiring artist Whitney (Debrah Farentino – Storm of the Century) arrives at the Throckmorton Institute of the Arts, a privately funded art school that just so happens to be the locale of Combs’ untimely demise. His biggest fan, she asks if she can use his basement studio, and the headmistress (Yvonne DeCarlo – The Munsters) relents. It isn’t long before Whitney finds the demon handbook and draws the monster back into existence – can she erase it before it kills them all?
The late ‘80s took a turn towards the supernatural while still trying to be splattery; Cellar Dweller luckily had one of the makeup masters as its director, and nothing can boost a low budget effort better than decent effects. Buechler hauls out a decapitation and mucho limb munching to keep gore fanatics happy, and his monster is big, practical, and goofily exaggerated just like the EC Comics of yore.
This is really the main thrust of the film; a loving tribute to those comics as well as a takedown of the snobbery of the art world towards them. The other artists at the institute include an abstract finger-painter (Brian Robbins – Head of the Class), a videographer (Pamela Bellwood – Dynasty), a performance artist (Miranda Wilson – An American Exorcism), and inexplicably, an ex-P.I. (Vince Edwards – Ben Casey) working on a novel. The joke of course is that they’re all terrible in their respective fields; not that Whitney is exactly Bernie Wrightson, but one can see why she’d at least be at an art institute.
This cheery nose thumbing at the bourgeois is brought to you by screenwriter Kit Du Bois, aka Don Mancini (Child’s Play), who with his first produced work displays the sense of humor that would see him thrive in the horror industry, and for good reason; Cellar Dweller is a great example of drawing room horror: one location with four rooms used, a small cast, and a single protagonist. It’s a film that doesn’t stretch beyond its limits; Buechler pulls off the effects, and Mancini’s script offers simple and succinct action – room to room, and kill to kill – done in a kitschy style by Buechler that compliments the material perfectly. If you’re going to make a movie about a cartoon monster, bring your colors.
There are limitations in the setup, of course; bouncing between the same spaces and the same folks can lead to deja-vu even at 70 minutes, and the ending is rushed. But the beauty of Cellar Dweller is seeing a rather old fashioned monster mash dressed up in neon clothes with a ‘80s attitude. Buechler would go on to direct Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and Ghoulies Go to College, among others, but this is my favorite of the films he helmed. It’s a delightful mix of monster and maker from a talent who knew both oh so well.
Cellar Dweller is available on Blu-ray as part of a Double Feature with Catacombs.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CORRUPTION (1968)