Cellar Dweller (1988) Retrospective

Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs), a highly successful comic book artist who gains inspiration from a mystical book of horrific drawings, inadvertently summons an evil spirit into his basement studio. Decades later, his house has become a small art institute run by the stern Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo). One night, comely student Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino) goes rooting around the sealed boxes in the cellar and releases the supernatural forces trapped there.


CELLAR DWELLER was shot at Empire’s Italian studios, it was produced by Bob Wynn. Sergio Salvati was the cinematographer, According to Albert Band, head of production for Empire, the film was cast with video actors to spur cassette sales. The cast includes Pamela Bellwood, Deborah Mullowney (Debrah Farentino), Vince Edwards and Yvonne De Carlo. The film is a  homage to the horror stories of the old EC comics. The story revolves around a female art student who so admires the old comic book that She seeks out the home of the artist to study there. The creator of the comic book died 30 years before under mysterious circumstances involved with black magic. He had drawn peils in his strips from which a hideous creature eventually materialized and it is still around and still hungry. De Carlo plays a character who eventually turns into the creature.

The script, written by Don Mancini, had been around Empire for years. Buechler had prepared some early pre-production art concepts for it before making TROLL for Empire in 1985. Once he accepted Empire topper Charles Band’s offer to direct the film he went through six re-writes of the script.

The challenge of trying to make a movie with decent acting, a good Story, and some fine FX in an amount of time considerably less than what the average filmmaker is allotted these days appealed to Buechler. Buechler even sped things ahead by shooting with two cameras simultaneously, thus ensuring better coverage and production value.

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One of the reasons Buechler sails through projects like Cellar Dweller the way he does, and the principal reason he found the time to make the film in the first place, is that he hired a dynamite team to back him up.

I’ve got the best crew in the world,” Buechler boasts. “We’re in the business of making monsters for the motion picture screen that are believable, and one of the reasons we do it well is because everyone has the opportunity to follow a character through its various stages of development. When you take an assembly line approach to this sort of work, you often sacrifice momentum and spontaneity.”

John Criswell, MMI’s shop foreman in charge of all things mechanical, likens working at MMI with being in “a big clubhouse. That’s what the atmosphere is like. You have a real good opportunity to try many different things, and I get to travel a lot.” Still, Criswell has nothing on his boss, who seems to be continuously jet-hopping from location to location, back and forth, successfully juggling four or five jobs at a time.

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“As time goes on,” notes Buechler, “I have to delegate a great deal of work because there’s just so much coming in. Most of the time I sculpt 90 percent of what’s happening here.

“We changed the monster into a more Lovecraftian creature,” said Buechler. “The creature now has more personality, he’s more a character. We also dropped a number of other fantasy characters that did nothing to further the story.”

Buechler, a former comic strip artist before starting his effects company, Mechanical & Makeup Imageries (MMI), admitted being a fan of the old EC Comics. The comics in the film are used as an integral part of its structure.

Buechler called the film’s titular creature “a cross between a werewolf and a vampire.” Buechler’s design was mechanized by John Criswell and worn by Michael Deak during filming. The script also called for one character to lose an arm, and for a zombie that enlivens the film’s climax. “nothing too complicated.” according to MMI staffers.

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Buechler downplays the film’s gore angle. “I’ve never done a slasher picture and I never wanna do one,” he said. “I think that it vou do something graphic it should explore psychological terror or deal with fantasy. It should not be a gratuitous exploitation of murder.”

“Mike’s a tall guy,” notes Buechler. “He’s probably about 6-foot-4. In the movie, wearing the suit with the mechanical head, and because of the way we photographed him, he looks more like 8-foot.”

John Foster, now production manager at MMI, was at the time responsible for the understructure of the costume worn by Deak. The Comic book scenes have been intercut with live action for the most graphic gore scenes in order to get an anticipated R-Rating when the picture is submitted to the MPAA. The strips were drawn at MMI by Foster, under Buechler’s supervision. The covers and additional interior art by famed artist Frank Brunner.

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John Carl Buechler

Bob Wynn
Charles Band

Don Mancini

Carl Dante

Debrah Farentino – Whitney Taylor (credited as Debrah Mullowney)
Brian Robbins – Phillip Lemley
Vince Edwards – Norman Meshelski
Cheryl-Ann Wilson – Lisa
Jeffrey Combs – Colin Childress
Pamela Bellwood – Amanda
Yvonne De Carlo – Mrs. Briggs

Cinefantastique v18n02-03 (March 1988)

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