The centerpiece of Arrow Video’s “Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams” boxed set of five Empire Pictures released between 1984 and 1989 is a little number called Cellar Dweller, and while the dweller of said cellar isn’t your typical werewolf, it has enough lycanthropic traits that I’m willing to write it up here. “It’s part werewolf and vampire, demon and ghost,” the protagonist reads from a dusty tome entitled Curses of the Ancient Dead. “It will tear your throat open, then drink your blood, and feast on your still-warm brains.” Sounds like just the sort of thing to leave well enough alone, but aspiring comic book artist Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino) isn’t the sort of person who can do that.
The film opens with an eight-minute prologue set “30 Years Ago,” when Whitney’s idol, horror comic legend Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs), is looking for inspiration in the same ancient tome for a story he’s drawing about a vicious, hairy monster with a pentagram carved into its chest attacking a defenseless maiden. The passage he reads from it is no more reassuring, though. “Woe unto you that gives the Beast form. To contemplate evil is to ask evil home.” Sure enough, the Beast comes to life and savagely claws Colin’s model to death, but he douses it in paint thinner and sets it alight. Unfortunately for Colin, he goes up in flames as well and takes the blame for his creation, setting the stage for the events to come “30 Years Later” when Whitney arrives at the Throckmorton Institute for the Arts, which so happens to be housed in the very mansion where Colin lived, worked, and died.
In short order, Whitney meets the Institute’s condescending administrator, Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo, the biggest name in the cast alongside Combs), who looks down on comics and doesn’t consider them “real” art. Mrs. Briggs, in turn, introduces her to the art colony’s other residents: abstract painter Phillip (Brian Robbins, the leather jacket-wearing “cool” kid from ’80s sitcom Head of the Class), ditzy performance artist Lisa (Miranda Wilson), bitchy video artist Amanda (Pamela Bellwood), with whom Whitney has a contentious history, and eccentric detective novelist Norman (Vince Edwards). In spite of Mrs. Briggs’s attempts to uphold Throckmorton’s highfalutin reputation, though, I couldn’t help noticing the posters for previous Empire Pictures Troll and Re-Animator in Phillip’s studio, and there’s framed artwork from Troll and Dolls in the Institute’s forbidden cellar, so clearly someone’s been done there in the time between Colin’s immolation and Whitney’s transformation of the space into her private studio. As much as she admires her influential forebear, though, Whitney seems destined to follow in his self-destructive footsteps the moment she puts pen to paper and starts conjuring up the title creature.
Since Cellar Dweller was directed by John Carl Buechler, Empire’s resident monster maker who’s also credited as the film’s special effects designer/supervisor, visual effects modeler, and creator of its special creature effects, said title character is most impressive indeed. (It definitely lives up to its description.) And once it’s brought back into our reality, it doesn’t take long for it to work through the supporting cast — with Whitney falling under suspicion for its dastardly deeds. Buechler and screenwriter Don Mancini (using the non de plume Kit Dubois) even work in one full-on transformation before it’s vanquished, but Whitney’s victory is short-lived as the monster gets the last word (or speech bubble).