538. Down to the Cellar – Jan Svankmajer

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SUMMARY: A little girl is sent down to the communal cellar to fetch potatoes, but the cellar is a strange place filled with subtle terrors.

WHY IT’S HERE: Jan Svankmajer’s ‘Down to the Cellar’ is another short whose place on an animation list is debatable, since only a small portion of its 15 minutes involve animation. However, this exquisite short is instructive in how to use animation sparingly in order to achieve the height of creepiness. Everyone knows stop-motion animation can be very creepy and the temptation for animators aiming for scares can be to overplay their hand, as in Paul Berry’s 1991 film ‘The Sandman’. But with ‘Down to the Cellar’, Svankmajer strikes exactly the right tone with a balance between live-action oddities and animated foreboding. The scares, when they do come, are in the form of disconcerting images and spine-tingling weirdness. Don’t be expecting the standard creepy clown doll in a rocking chair. Instead we get hungry shoes and disobedient potatoes! ‘Down to the Cellar’ is one of Svankmajer’s most tonally ingenious shorts. Monika Belo-Cabanová as the little girl is perfect in portraying a sense of dread but never outright terror and the people she meets in the cellar have a sinister edge while never entirely showing themselves to be malevolent. A masterpiece of subtle horror with a suitably ambiguous Sisyphean ending, ‘Down to the Cellar’ is one of Jan Svankmajer’s most celebrated works and a magically haunting experience for less sensitive children.

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