Cellar Dweller (1987): John Carl… Beastler!

Matty waxes lyrical about his favourite Buechler flick. 

In late ‘86, while John Carl Buechler was working on the FX for The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987) and Empire flicks Ghoulies II (1987) and The Caller (1987), Empire boss Charles Band asked the makeup maestro to helm a quickie. As it happens, Buechler was originally scheduled to follow his feature length directorial debut, fellow Band production Troll (1986), with Ghoulies II before he was nudged from the canvas chair; and, in a further amusing twist, the sets for The Caller were recycled for the programmer that became his actual sophomore venture, CELLAR DWELLER (1987).

Cellar Dweller is a film of two Buechler ‘bests’. The first is the monster it’s built around. A towering, vicious brute, the Cellar Dweller is an incredible creation. It’s the perfect blend of comic book ghoulishness and tangibility; the embodiment of the film’s pulpy footing (it is, after all, about a flesh-munching beast conjured from the drawings of an EC-style horror comic [1]) and everything that makes ‘80s horror so good to begin with, particularly the type of concept-driven, FX-heavy B-fare that Empire specialised in. Primarily brought to life via an awe-inspiring creature suit, the Cellar Dweller is played by MMI lieutenant Mike Deak and Buechler would subsequently homage the physicality of its design numerous times throughout his career, most notably in Project Metalbeast (1995), Hatchet 1 and 2, and subsequent megaphone-wielding assignments Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) and Watchers Reborn (1998).               

Cellar Dweller’s second achievement is being Buechler’s strongest directorial offering. Boasting a style and polish that belies its $900,000 budget and measly ten day shooting schedule, Cellar Dweller is a work of tremendous aesthetic and tonal harmony. The jolts land, the playfully macabre atmosphere intoxicates, and the photography (by Fulci regular Sergio Salvati, whose unions with producer Band extend to Crawlspace (1986), Catacombs (1988), Puppet Master (1989), the aforementioned Ghoulies II, and Cellar Dweller’s production mate, Transformations (1988) [2]) exudes a flavoursome and wholly appropriate splash panel energy.

John Carl Buechler and the Cellar Dweller

The film’s sole flaw is its wafer-thin plot. Though featuring suitably in-on-the-gag performances from Yvonne De Carlo, Debrah Farentino, Brian Robbins [3], and Jeffrey Combs (as the ‘50s comic book artist behind the Dweller in the film’s brilliant, period set prologue [4]), it’s truly back-of-a-napkin stuff. There are a couple of interesting pokes at the nature of creativity and the problems that come with it (plagiarism, artistic exhaustion etc.) but Cellar Dweller is a simple carve-‘em-up at heart. The isolated, De Carlo-fronted artists’ retreat where the action unfolds could have just as easily been a high school, military bunker or a spaceship, and the titular basement lurker could be switched with a masked maniac or some other kind of creature or ghoul with very little difference to the finished film. Still, it’s hard to be too critical since no-frills was Buechler’s brief.

Having impressed Band with a spec script he’d written called ‘Bloody Buddy’ — which, of course, became Child’s Play (1988) at United Artists — a young Don Mancini was recruited to pen Cellar Dweller based upon the usual Empire Pictures poster/title combo. Ultimately, the reality bending period piece Mancini concocted (“The Thing (1982) meets The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)” as author Dave Jay describes it [5]) was ruled too expensive and ambitious. The script was reworked to fit Band’s fast n’ cheap mandate, and a dissatisfied Mancini took a pseudonym (a decision hastened when he sold another spec script, ‘The Dog Who Cried Wolf’, to Disney during production). Interestingly, former Band collaborator Brian Yuzna believes that the retooled version of Cellar Dweller has more in common with a segment of his unproduced portmanteau, ‘Tales of the Midnight Demon’, than it does Mancini’s original screenplay. Fittingly, Yuzna was developing ‘Tales’ with underground comix icon, Kim Deitch, at Empire but the project — alongside a Yuzna-policed iteration of Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox (1989) — fell apart when he sued Band for monies owed from his and Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985).

[1] Buechler returned to the idea in Ghoulies Go to College (1991).
[2] Both films were produced in conjunction with Bob Wynn’s Dove Corporation Ltd.
[3] One of the stars of ‘80s sitcom Head of the Class, Robbins (real name Brian Levine) has since become a top-tier studio exec. Currently he’s the president of Paramount Pictures — which, as impressive as it is, will never change the fact that Robbins also directed three of the worst films in existence: The Shaggy Dog (2006), and dismal Eddie Murphy vehicles Norbit (2007) and Meet Dave (2008).
[4] The striking Cellar Dweller art used in the film is by artist and illustrator Frank Brunner. His credits include: Vampirella, Eerie, and a classic mid-‘70s run of Doctor Strange.
[5] Empire of the B’s: The Mad Movie World of Charles Band by Dave Jay, Torsten Dewi and Nathan Shumate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s