Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about.
Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD.
Title: Cellar Dwellar
Genre: Slimy Monster Movie
Tagline: The shape of nightmares to come.
Released by: New World Video
Director: John Carl Buechler
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Plot: Thirty years ago, a famous horror cartoonist’s creation comes to life and murders him. Now his old home has been converted into a colony for up and coming young artists, but the evil that destroyed its creator is waiting for someone new to pick up the old drawing board and bring the bloody terror of the CELLAR DWELLER to life, again.
Thoughts: There was a film production/distribution company throughout the nineteen eighties specializing in low budget exploitation films that ruled both the grindhouses and video shops during that era and no, I’m not talking about the Cannon Film Group for a change. I’m talking about Charles Band’s amazing Empire Pictures, which was responsible for a slew of mug-melting, mind-bending movie madness that included: The Alchemist, Troll, Breeders, Robot Holocaust, TerrorVision, Eliminators, Re-Animator, From Beyond, Crawlspace, Rawhead Rex, Dolls, Creepozoids, Prison, Transformations, Intruder, Cemetery High, Robot Jox, Ghoulies, Trancers and Puppetmaster to name a few. These films were always high imagination on a very low budget and they entertained the living hell out of me when I was a kid.
I did not see Cellar Dweller upon its original home video release in 1988. My tastes at that time had become more refined and I remember thinking that the cover looked like a stupid, cheap monster movie and that it was probably just another bad Gremlins rip-off. Well, I recently picked up a used copy on VHS and it’s actually a very well done, highly original little flick that was a lot of fun to watch. Directed by John Carl Buechler, the man responsible for the original Troll, the awesome Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and the insane Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College. It’s a very simple little monster-in-the-basement tale, but with a few nerdy little plot twists that definitely set it apart.
The opening pre-title sequence gives us none other than the brilliant cult actor, Jeffrey Combs as the famous 1930’s horror-artist Colin Childers, the creator of the popular Cellar Dweller comic book. As he works on his latest issue down in the subterranean studio inside his old mansion one dark and stormy night, something supernatural takes place. The slimy, man-eating monster that Childers has drawn comes to life straight out of the panel he’s working on, bringing with it a terrified young woman that was featured in the comic as well. She is attacked and murdered by the creature, so Childers tries to destroy it by setting his drawings on fire, killing himself in the process.
Cut to thirty years later and we meet Whitney Taylor (Deborah Mullowney), an extremely attractive and promising young cartoonist who’s obsessed with the work of the late Colin Childers. She arrives on yet another dark and stormy night to a remote artist colony that now occupies the old Childers house where the horrifying previous events took place. Mrs. Briggs (The Munster’s Yvonne De Carlo) is the colony’s stern head mistress that refers to the previous owner’s demise as a horrible murder/suicide and takes an immediate dislike to Whitney’s admiration of Childers. To make matters worse, Whitney’s old video-artist rival Amanda is Mrs. Brigg’s pet and she really has it in for her.
However, Whitney will not be deterred as she breaks the rules and ventures into the cellar that has been declared off limits for all the students. It’s there that she finds much of Childers old work on the Cellar Dweller comic and a weird book with a satanic pentagram on the cover called, “Curses of the Ancient Dead.” After reciting an old passage from it, she somehow convinces Mrs. Briggs to let her turn the old cellar into her new art studio. Soon she discovers that when she gives full reign to her darker creations, the monstrous Cellar Dweller enters the real world to do her bidding. Angered by Amanda’s constant torments, Whitney draws the creature killing her and sure enough the beast appears and eats her nemesis.
Next, the creature starts killing everyone in the colony as it feeds off of the creative energy from Whitney’s renderings. A bizarre method actor, who is prone to using a loaded gun to spark his creativity, has his head ripped off by the monster. Then it devours the sexy performance artist Lisa while she’s in the nude. Finally, Whitney realizes that she has enacted an ancient curse and the monster no longer needs her artwork to live in our world. She goes to Mrs. Briggs for help, but it turns out that she has been eaten, too!
When the guy she likes, Phillip (Brian Robbins) gets sucked into the comic panels by the beast, Whitney uses white out on her artwork to destroy the monster. Unfortunately it also destroys Phillip, so Whitney draws a picture of him and he magically returns to life. Whitney then draws everyone who’s perished throughout the film and they all reappear once again without a scratch. But it’s not over yet! The creature is still alive because of the creative energy that Whitney’s expended, so she burns the monster’s drawing along with everyone else’s causing them to all perish once again. Finally, Whitney thinks she’s done it… and then the creature re-appears again and kills her. Doh! The end.
So, when it’s all said and done this is not a bad little piece of gooey, low budget monster fun. Watching this movie actually made me want to track down some more Empire Pictures titles for my collection. This one would make a great double bill with Stuart Gordon’s Dolls. It gets big points for having an original plot, albeit a totally ridiculous one. Also, a great deal of atmosphere is created through the simple use of lightning flashes combined with thunder and howling wind sound effects, but unfortunately the budget could’nt afford rain, so the film seems to take place in a perpetual electric storm. There’s some great gore and a little nudity, so how bad could it be? Not bad at all and it clocks in at a breezy 87 minutes to boot. My kinda low budget slimy monster movie!