Cellar Dweller Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 27, 2023 (as part of the Empire of Screams collection)
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 77:36
Director: John Carl Buechler
Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Arrow’s Enter the Video Stoe: Empire of Screams five-movie collection, which also includes David Allen, Charles Band, John Carl Buechler, Steven Ford, Peter Manoogian, Ted Nicolaou & Rosemarie Turko’s Dungeonmaster (1984), Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1987) and Robot Jox (1989), and Peter Manoogian’s Arena (1989).
The promising career of a horror comic book artist ends in a fiery death when he confronts the bloody carnage of his own imagination in his studio. Years later, an ardent devoteé of the artist's work becomes a resident in his house, now an art academy, unaware that her imagination has revived the grotesque murderer of the past...and that she may be the next victim. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Though an entertaining little romp in its own right and leagues better than the dopey content producer Charles Band churns out of his Full Moon machine these days, John Carl Buechler’s Cellar Dweller (1987) is definitely the weakest film in Arrow Video’s Empire Pictures collection (Empire of Screams). Like the shorts that make up the Empire anthology known as Dungeonmaster (or Ragewar, depending on which version you’re watching), it is essentially built around an impressive special effect – a big, full-torso monster suit with mechanical facial articulation – and a collection of already available, Italian-made film sets. Unlike those shorts, it is a standalone film and, even with a shortish runtime (about 70 minutes without credits), future Child’s Play creator Don Mancini’s script cannot support a feature-length structure. Or, perhaps it could have, had Buechler not been so limited by his budget, which doesn’t allow him to fully explore the central concept of a comic book coming to life. Fortunately, Mancini’s strong characterizations still work, thanks to the top tier cast, including Jeffrey Combs (in a glorified cameo), Brian Robbins, Pamela Bellwood, Yvonne De Carlo, and lead Debrah Farentino in her first feature role.
No one can say the filmmakers didn’t try their best, though, nor is the cast & crew littered with untalented nobodies. Obviously, Mancini went on to bigger and better things (Cellar Dweller is his only non-Child’s Play script to make it to the big screen), but the less well-known Buechler was a rising star in his own right. Known mostly for his special make-up effects work on the majority of Empire’s films, as well as many Full Moon follow-ups (the Cellar Dweller itself features a trademark Buechler ‘ghoulie’ face), he directed one of the Dungeonmaster shorts and the studio’s surprise hit Troll (1986) before Cellar Dweller. The same year, he was handed the reins on Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, which was shredded by MPAA censorship cuts, but still a good example of what Buechler could achieve working on a proper studio budget and not doing half of the behind-the-scenes jobs himself (direction, effects designer/supervisor, make-up artist, modeler…). It’s not one of the Friday the 13th franchise’s best, but it is one of the best-looking and, like Cellar Dweller, utilizes a stylish, comic book aesthetic. As far as I know, Cellar Dweller wasn’t also trimmed to achieve an R-rating, but, severed body parts aside, it kind of feels like it was made to please equally censor-crazy basic cable standards & practices. More gooey than gory.
Buechler’s concentration was likely focused on making the effects work and bringing the movie in on time, which might have been a problem, had it not been for Empire’s fantastic Italian crew. The Italian film industry was on a steep decline by the mid-’80s as money dried up and the video market took over, Empire movies, like Cellar Dweller, were a haven for the region’s craftspeople. None were more important to the production than cinematographer Sergio Salvati. Salvati worked as a camera assistant on Luigi Bazzoni & Franco Rossellini’s The Possessed (Italian: La donna del lago, 1965) and Damiano Damiani’s The Witch (Italian: La strega in amore, 1966), but is best known to cult horror audiences as Lucio Fulci’s favorite collaborator, having shot Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2, 1979), The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981), among others. His work on Cellar Dweller is as fantastic as ever, but, if you really want to see how he could elevate a cheapo Empire or Full Moon production, check out David Schmoeller’s Catacombs (1988).
Cellar Dweller made its US VHS debut (practically its entire debut for the region) via New World Video in 1988. Scream Factory then included it as part of a 2013 four-film set with Catacombs, Fabrizio Laurenti’s Contamination .7 (aka: Crawlers, 1993), and the multi-director-made Dungeonmaster, where it was cropped to 1.33:1. Scream Factory’s 2015 Blu-ray debut (a double-feature with Catacombs) was derived from a slightly damaged print source, as is, I believe, this new Arrow disc, which is the only movie in the Empire of Screams collection to not feature a 2K restoration. I’ve opted not to include any comparison sliders on this review, because, when shrunk to screen size, the differences between the Arrow and Scream discs are almost indecipherable (aside from the former being 1.85:1 and the latter being 1.78:1). The remaster does lead to slightly better detail and notably improved grain texture, but you have to blow each image up quite a bit to see it. The other movies in this set (at least the three I’ve watched thus far) have bigger changes made to color timing, whereas, in this case, the temperature and vibrancy is very similar. If I squint, the Arrow disc might feature richer blacks and shadows. Part of the improvement is due to “additional restoration” done by Arrow (the company’s wording), which cleans up a few print damage issues, but the fact that the Scream transfer was sharing disc space with another movie probably didn’t help.
Cellar Dweller is presented in its original stereo and uncompressed LPCM 2.0. The mix is on the quieter side overall, but springs to life whenever the monster appears and starts growling, making people scream, and prompting the soundtrack to kick into gear. There is a slightly muffled quality to the whole track, but I don’t believe this is a compression issue, so much as an issue with the condition of the original audio (keeping in mind that this is the one movie in the set Arrow couldn’t directly remaster). The bulk of the sound, aside from actor performances, also seems to have been added in post, so it has a sort of artificial quality. Fortunately, this kind of fits the material. Cellar Dweller is the first and only movie in the Empire of Screams set not to be scored by Albert Band. Filling in is Carl Dante, who opts for a Band-esque, but fully orchestrated (mostly synth instrumentations, but still…) and more old-fashioned score, highlighted by jazzy interludes.
Commentary by special make-up effects artist Michael Deak – A newly recorded commentary moderated by Schlock Pit’s Matty Budrewicz and Dave Wain that covers Deak’s filmography, the making of Cellar Dweller with emphasis on the effects and on-set comradery, the logistics of shooting in Italy, and the differences between indie and studio projects.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies (16:03, HD) – A 2023 appreciation of the late John Carl Buechler and his work with Empire and Charles Band by Budrewicz & Wain.
Inside the Cellar (16:30, HD) – Deak returns for this 2023 interview, which covers a lot of the same ground as his commentary track, albeit more concisely.
Cellar Dweller VHS trailer
Empire Pictures trailer reel – Luca Bercovici’s Ghoulies (1985), Albert Band’s Ghoulies II (1987), Tim Kincaid’s Breeders (1986), Peter Manoogian’s Eliminators (1986), David Schmoeller’s Crawlspace (1986), Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986), and Renny Harlin’s Prison (1987).
Empire Pictures trailer reel: VHS Mode! – Catacombs, Eliminators, Manoogian’s Enemy Territory (1987), From Beyond, Richard McCarthy’s Ghost Town (1988), Ghoulies, Ghoulies II, Ted Nicolaou’s TerrorVision (1986), Troll, and Crawlspace.
Image galleries – Behind the scenes, artwork & stills, original sales sheet, and original production notes
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.