Perverse, saucy, and sly, Up in the Cellar tells the satirical story of a college student who takes revenge on his university’s callous president by seducing the women in the president’s life as a means of derailing the administrator’s aspirations to political office. The storyline integrates myriad counterculture-era signifiers, including campus unrest, exhibitionism, experimental filmmaking, free love, the generation gap, political duplicity, underground revolutionaries, and more. So even though the film’s production company, B-movie supplier American International Pictures, apparently envisioned Up in the Cellar as a quasi-sequel to the company’s sexed-up 1968 flick Three in the Attic, the picture works well as a stand-alone entertainment, at least for those with a dark and dry sense of humor. For while some scenes in Up in the Cellar are outrageous, screenwriter-director Theodore J. Flicker, who scored with The President’s Analyst (1967) and later co-created the sitcom Barney Miller (1975–1982), never achieves out-and-out hilarity. Instead, Up in the Cellar takes the piss out of mainstream institutions while presenting a suicidal poet as an antihero.
Colin Slade (Wes Stern) attends college on a poetry scholarship until a computer program determines that his rhymes fall below the university’s precise mathematical standards. Colin seeks redress with Maurice Camber (Larry Hagman), the cowboy-hat wearing college president, but Maurice proves unsympathetic. Then Colin returns home to the condemned building where he squats and watches in horror as the structure is demolished. Blaming all his difficulties on Maurice, Colin is open to suggestion when approached by a representative of Ultimate Revolution, a student group planning insurrection. Together with the UR guys, Colin makes a grand plan to kill himself by jumping from a radio tower while Maurice dedicates the tower during an opening ceremony. Yet things don’t go as planned—Maurice, sensing a photo opportunity, rescues Colin. That’s why Colin resolves to ruin Maurice’s life by seducing the administrator’s wife, daughter, and mistress. Each woman requires a different approach, so Colin adopts three new personas.
Among the many jokes embedded into this storyline is the fact that Colin is an average-looking schnook, so the idea that he drives three women wild with desire is part male wish-fulfillment and part skewering of Sexual Revolution iconography. Somehow, Flicker makes Colin seem confused and desperate instead of horny and sleazy, so Colin’s relationship with Maurice’s daughter, Harlene (Judy Pace), is tender—even though he draws the shy girl out of her shell by persuading her to appear in a stag reel. In fact, everything in the picture follows a consistent sort of twisted logic. The performances are mostly just adequate, with, for instance, Joan Collins adding little to the role of Maurice’s astrology-addicted wife. Yet the way Stern seems perplexed by everything that’s happening says something about young people trying to comprehend the true ramifications of power at the very moment they gain influence. Hagman is a hoot, presaging his Dallas days by portraying a giddily self-serving monster.
Up in the Cellar: GROOVY