On paper, The Cello is fascinating. It’s directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who’s made four Saw movies; it features Saw villain Tobin Bell and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, and most of it takes place (and was filmed in) Saudi Arabia. It’s also about a demonic cello. Unfortunately, those elements don’t quite come together, and the end result—even with, we re-iterate, a demonic cello in the mix—isn’t fully satisfying.

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The fault lies mostly with Turki Alalshikh’s script, which he adapted from his own novel. The Cello runs two hours, but it feels longer, especially during its second act—basically, the part between “I bought a new cello” and “I will now stop denying there’s something wrong with my new cello.” The cellist in question is Nasser (Syrian actor Samer Ismail), a nice guy who’s put his philharmonic ambitions on hold so he can care for his ailing mother while helping one of his buddies start a music academy in Riyadh. But mom’s now in remission, the school is up and running—and an orchestra in Italy just so happens to be looking for new international talent.

Nasser desperately needs a new instrument to nail his audition, so when he meets a mysterious man (Bell) willing to sell him a top-shelf cello for a reasonable price, he signs on the dotted line. Unfortunately, neither the Needful Things vibes, nor the fact that the shopkeeper says things like “All I ask is that you devote your soul to whatever you play” set off alarm bells—but the audience, who’s just watched The Cello’s opening scene, a flashback to an 18th century concert in which the same cello’s music drove the audience to gruesome mayhem, knows he’s just made a symphony-sized mistake.

Image for article titled The Cello Is an Odd Composition of Slow Pacing and Gory Terrors

Image: Destiny Media Entertainment

Nasser becomes obsessed with playing his new acquisition, to the anguish of his mother and elderly uncle—and even the cops, who warn him about disturbing the peace. While he hears only music (and sinister whispers that urge him to keep playing, keep practicing, keep working on one very particular special composition), his loved ones notice his personality has changed… and then they start meeting horrifying ends. Here, Bousman’s time in the Saw trenches is put to excellent use; the gore does not disappoint.

Eventually, even Nasser must admit he’s in the grip of something evil, and sets out with his surviving pals to learn more about where the instrument came from. Some fresh energy enters The Cello as the group enters mystery-solving mode and finds their way to Cremona—the Italian city known for its long tradition of violin-making, and the setting for the movie’s violent prologue. There, we learn more about the flamboyant conductor Nasser’s been glimpsing in his visions, played by Irons.

Image for article titled The Cello Is an Odd Composition of Slow Pacing and Gory Terrors

Image: Destiny Media Entertainment

Pacing aside—things pick up a lot near the end, with one character discovering a vital clue and then making it to a crucial event with whiplash-inducing speed—the main issue with The Cello is that we barely learn anything about the characters, despite all the time we spend with them. Nasser, the protagonist, gets the equivalent of bullet points (his mom was ill; he still has sparks with his ex; he has a couple of close friends) but not much resembling an interior life, and it’s hard to care much about his excruciating ordeal as a result.

The other characters reveal even less—Bell and Irons ooze malevolence with ease, but that’s no doubt because we’re so familiar with their past roles. However, it’s also a bit distracting to see them pop up here and there when the film is otherwise so focused on its Middle Eastern cast. That’s not a dig on those less-recognizable actors, who are appealing despite their roles being underwritten. Really, the most charismatic character here is the cello itself, which gets a deliciously grim origin story, racks up a shocking body count, and makes music so beautiful it might drive a person mad.

The Cello opens today, December 8, in theaters.

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