Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: John Carl Buechler’s Cellar Dweller

If you were a horror fan in the 80s, you might not have known John Carl Buechler’s name, but his films – Troll, Ghoulies, and Friday the 13th Part VII, to name a few – likely found their way into your VCR. He worked his way up from memorable creature effects on countless horror movies, stepped behind the camera for Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, and continued to work for decades, earning a reputation as the type of figure who would bend over backward to give young artists a chance to learn on the job.

It was thus a surprise to many when a tweet from Kane Hodder in mid-February of this year contained the sad news that Buechler had been diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer. The family quick set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay the mounting medical bills as the noted director/writer/SFX artist fought for his life. Almost exactly one month later, that campaign turned into a memorial fund – Buechler had died at the age of 66.

Today, I look back on his career by watching one of his lesser-known films: 1988’s Cellar Dweller.

What’s It About?

Colin Childress – a 1930s comic-book artist (Jeffrey Combs) – falls victim to one of his ghastly fictional creations, a rabid werewolf-bigfoot hybrid. Decades later, his home has been turned into a commune for various kinds of artists looking to hone their craft. Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino) – an aspiring comic book artist who idolizes Childress – joins the commune, but history repeats itself when her drawings come to life and hunt the other members in the house.

Frankly, I think she really captured my “essence”

Or, to put it another way, a guy in the past caused a giant, killer bigfoot to leap out of the pages of a comic book and into the real world where it took extreme joy in causing mayhem. Many years later, it all happens again. People get chewed up real good.

Why I Watched It

It ticked all the boxes: a John Carl Buechler film from his Empire Pictures days that I haven’t already seen and is available to stream. Plus, with Jeffrey Combs in the cast and a young Don “Child’s Play” Mancini responsible for the script Cellar Dweller seemed like a slamdunk.

Did I Like It?

Cellar Dweller is watchably wonky, enjoyably cheesy, but ultimately a lesser effort from Buechler and offers only the faintest hint of the supreme camp Don Mancini would later deliver to the world. Before I go on, it might help, however, to know a little more about Cellar Dweller’s backstory.

Buechler cut his teeth in the industry doing special effects and creature design work for early 80s Roger Corman films like Sorceress, Android, and Deathstalker. Not too long after that, Charles Band – a Corman counterpart in the independent film industry – stumped off to Italy to take advantage of tax incentives and produced movies for his new company Empire Pictures. Buechler joined up with Band and worked on most of the Empire’s horror and sci-fi films. Most notable among their earliest collaborations was 1985’s Ghoulies, a PG-13 Gremlins meets Garbage Pail Kids oddity that became one of the best sellers in Empire’s history and spawned three sequels.

Buechler later directed 1991’s Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College

Ghoulies put Buechler on the map, and the next year Band let him step behind the camera and make his directorial debut with 1986’s Troll. (It’s not Buechler’s fault that Claudio Fragasso would later make the completely unrelated sequel and best worst movie ever Troll 2.) Two years after Troll, Buechler directed both Cellar Dweller and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, aka, Jason vs. Carrie. The Friday the 13th film, not surprisingly, is the one most people know, but Cellar Dweller is…

Oh, I so wish I could say this is the superior film, an overlooked classic unjustly ignored by the idiot masses, but I can’t. Mostly, Cellar Dweller is a horror curiosity. John Carl Buechler directing a Don Mancini script about an EC Comics-style monster coming to life with Reanimator-era Jeffrey Combs cameoing and Charles Band’s Empire Pictures picking up distribution duties? Stop it, stop it – I’m salivating over here.

Watching the film now, however, makes me wish I had seen this back in its heyday. It would have paired nicely with House, House II, The Gate, Critters, and other PG-13 gateway horror movies of my youth, but when viewed for the first time today Cellar Dweller just seems hokey. It’s a fascinating snapshot of a period in time and actually possesses some clever story ideas, but it’s not the strongest effort from anyone involved.

Mancini had some tougher words for it. In 2003, in a rather blunt interview with CampBlood Mancini – who wrote the Cellar Dweller script under the name Kit Du Bois – practically disowned it:

A decade later, when Joblo ran a retrospective on Mancini’s career it had a far more charitable opinion of Cellar Dweller:

The hidden gem in Mancini’s writing resume must go to his debut script for the 1988 horror-fantasy CELLAR DWELLER. Not so much for the film itself, as John Carl Buechler (TROLL, FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD) couldn’t quite execute the material into classic status, but for the cool premise and off-the-rails character that the great Jeffrey Combs would eventually agree to play.

Let’s not go crazy here, JoBlo. Combs is in the film for all of 7 minutes. Sure, he’s channeling Herbert West – a monster and a half-naked woman magically appear behind him and rather than ask “WTF?” or at least make some effort to help the poor girl he seems to instead find it all very fascinating – but it’s just 7 minutes. He’s dead by the time the opening credits roll.

He does kind of pop back up again since the Re-Animator poster is noticeably on the wall of Whitney’s room.

My take: Cellar Dweller is cheesetastic in an entirely 80s kind of way. It’s a single-location non-thriller filled with an oddball assortment of characters. The idea of the artistic commune feels horribly underexplained and sometimes comes across as just plain bizarre. An aspiring actress, comic book artist, performance artist, filmmaker, and – I’m not making this up – a retired PI trying to transition into becoming a modern-day Raymond Chandler all live under the thumb of a caretaker who doesn’t seem to think any of them have any real talent?

When you see this performance art, you might see the caretaker’s point.

Only in the 80s, man.

Admittedly, that adds to the film’s oddball charm, but only so much. The horror – the main thing the film should deliver – is aggressively repetitive: monster materializes in the background, cutaways to Whitney’s comic strips shows us the nasty bits they couldn’t afford to film, and then we get a couple of close-ups of the monster nom-nom-nomming on obviously fake human limbs. The plot goes completely off the rails at the end. It’s less a movie, more an extended episode of Tales from the Crypt.

But there’s such a good-natured charm to all of it that I can’t really be mad at it. They probably made this in Italy for next to no money, and they had a script which has since been disowned by its author. All of the actors give it their best. The monster looks cool.

John Carl Buechler and crew did their best to put on a show and maybe some scare some prepubescent kids. Many before and many in the future of Hollywood will be drawn in by that same creative calling to just cook up some fun scares to make audiences jump. Buechler pursued it throughout his career with an infectious passion.

They don’t make movies like Cellar Dweller anymore, and in some ways maybe that’s not such a bad thing. However, this is a movie ultimately about a creator quarreling with her own monstrous creation, and while that came from the mind of Don Mancini and not John Carl Buechler it does broadly describe his entire career. He lived to make monsters and scare, and we should all be so lucky to go out having done what we loved.

Did It Scare Me?

No, but show this to 10-year-old me and he’d probably pretend to be macho and not scared and then have nightmares about the monster.

Where to Stream

YouTube

31 Days of Halloween So Far:

Next Up: Sid Haig vs. the Old West

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