Written and Directed by: Wes Craven
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"Your father's one sick mother. Actually your mother is one sick mother too."
Wes Craven is a well-known commodity to the horror guru, if not movie-going audiences in general. He is of course best-known for his creation of Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and he garnered fame once again with the release of the Scream trilogy during the 90s. Besides these films, Craven has done a number of films in the genre that range from excellent (The Serpent and the Rainbow) to the downright awful (The Hills Have Eyes 2), while a few films fall in between. The People under the Stairs is one of these latter films. Released in 1991, The People Under the Stairs is a quirky, almost light-hearted horror film that has earned a unique place in the Craven canon.
The film’s opening presents our protagonist, Poindexter (better known as Fool to his friends), and his family which includes an ailing mother a sister, Ruby, who is a single mother. Fool’s family is in danger of being evicted from their apartment by their cruel landlords who can’t wait to empty the decrepit building so that the land might be used for a more profitable venture. Things are looking bleak until Ruby’s street thug boyfriend, Leroy, learns that the landlords’ house supposedly houses a supply of rare gold coins. Desperate, Fool joins Leroy and his accomplice Spencer when they attempt to rob the home.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that something is very, very wrong with the house and the family that lives inside. There are mysterious noises emanating from behind the walls and an extremely aggressive dog that doesn’t appreciate intruders. Furthermore, the landlords (who call each other “Mom” and “Dad”) are just a tad eccentric. For example, their daughter, Alice, has apparently never been outside and she is frequently abused by her parents. On top of all of this, the house is literally a deathtrap from which there is no escape. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for Fool and the gang when they become trapped in the home with both the crazy landlords and the eponymous people under the stairs.
The film plays out much differently than the marketing and your own expectations would lead you to believe. The monsters here are not the strange people in the house’s basement; instead, it’s the apparently normal “Mom” and “Dad” who are the true monsters, as they have imprisoned the people for not living up to their expectations. As Alice explains, the father cuts out the “offending” part (a tounge, for example) and sends them to the basement for not being a perfect young man. When I first saw this film years ago, I was disappointed with this because I was expecting some type of monster movie from the creator of A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, I have since come to appreciate the film more because I see that Craven is operating from the notion that man is often the biggest monster of all. It’s a theme we see a lot in horror, and Craven pulls it off fairly well here because the two antagonists are very memorable because these two serve as a satire against the religious right who are always quick to condemn unsavory elements to Hell.
However, these antagonists are also the reason for another unexpected turn here, as this film is really a lot more fun and entertaining than it should be. Despite focusing on very dark and serious themes such as racism, child abuse, and class structure, The People Under the Stairs never feels as serious as you might expect. The “Mom” and “Dad” characters are so maniacally over the top that you can’t help but chuckle at them most of the time. Everett McGill (also known for his performance in Silver Bullet) especially turns in a crazed performance as the nutcase father who is prone to fits of dancing as he celebrates his triumphs. It's also worth noting that actress Wendy Robie (who portrays "Mom") also played the role of McGill's wife on the popular David Lynch television series, "Twin Peaks". The presence of adolescent protagonists also makes the film seem lighter as well, as this tends to make any film skew towards a lighter tone. Don’t get me wrong — the film is no comedy, but it’s not the excessively dark and serious film you might expect because it seems more like a folk tale. Indeed, the film seems rooted in this tradition, as Fool’s grandfather discusses how none of the kids in the neighborhood would even walk by the house when he was younger.
Overall, the film is a fun and entertaining thrill ride from beginning to end. Brandon Adams’s performance as Fool really holds the film together, as the character is easily likable and charismatic. Furthermore, Ving Rhames even manages to make his common street thug very likable, and Kelly Jo Minter isn’t nearly as annoying here as she was in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5. Altogether, this film represents a time when Craven decided to be “on,” as the film is very well done, and he doesn’t get too heavy-handed with the aforementioned subject matter. While the film is essentially a parable of the poor triumphing over the rich, it’s also a pretty good horror film filled with suspense, grotesque imagery, and two very memorable villains. In many ways, this represents the opposite of Craven’s own The Last House on the Left, as there is a sense of unbridled innocence that can’t be overcome, and this is subtly reinforced by the film’s final shot.
Ultimately, The People Under the Stairs doesn’t stand alongside Craven’s best films, but it’s not too far below them, either. It’s certainly much better than most of his filmography, and it’s definitely worth a look, especially if you’re just looking for an entertaining film. If you’re the type of person that enjoys dark and serious horror films, this probably won’t be for you. However, I suspect that most people will find it very enjoyable because it is a fairly unique film. The Universal DVD that’s out there is bare bones in the extras department, but the presentation is well done. There’s supposedly a sequel or a remake currently in production (according to what you read on the Net), so it’s possible that Universal might revisit the original at some point on DVD or Blu-Ray. However, the disc that's currently available retails for around ten bucks, which I find to be a fair price for this one. Buy it!
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