The People Under the Stairs. 1991. Directed & Written by Wes Craven.
Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J Langer, and Ving Rhames. Universal Pictures. Rated R. 102 minutes.
★1/2 (Blu ray release)
I really have a thing for Wes Craven. Do you think he knows?
He’s written and directed some incredibly disturbing, unsettling, and wild horror films. Let’s count the great ones, shall we? The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Swamp Thing, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Hills Have Eyes Part II (maybe I’ll draw some ire by planting that one in here, but I love it, and think it’s unfairly maligned by a lot of critics and horror fans), The Serpent and the Rainbow (directing credit only), Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Scream (directing again only).
This is not to mention the bunch of other fun horror films he’s had a had in producing, such as Feast, Wishmaster, and the fantastic remake of his own The Hills Have Eyes. I mean, for A Nightmare on Elm Street alone Craven gets a spot on the top horror masters of all time. Brilliance. But there are a few of his films (such as the aforementioned sequel to his The Hills Have Eyes) which don’t get the credit they deserve.
Cue: The People Under the Stairs.
At first the film could appear to be a crime thriller about some robbers, but (aside from having Craven’s name on it) you can quickly tell it isn’t going to be the same old story. The film starts off with “Fool” Williams living in a ghetto in L.A. His family is soon to be evicted. Luckily, or realistically unfortunately, for Fool, he knows Leroy who is a lifetime criminal. They quickly decide to rob The Robesons, who lovingly call themselves Mommy & Daddy (played fabulously by former onscreen husband & wife in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill), who live in a big, old house with only their daughter Alice. Once they get inside the house, hoping to find all the supposed riches the Robesons have hidden away, they discover, to their horrible surprise, it isn’t any treasure Mommy & Daddy have been hiding; the secrets in the house are far worse.
I really love the trailers for The People Under the Stairs because it has such a creepy, dreadful feeling. It starts with the ominous “in every neighbourhood… there is a house that even the adults talk about“, or something similar. Just superbly disturbing. Once you get into the film, past the bits of ham, there are some wild bits that really creeped me out. In particular, Everett McGill puts on a suit at one point that turned me away, by pure fright, from leather – long before I ever enjoyed the devilishly fun first season of American Horror Story, and the Rubber Man.
One thing I love is how hard Craven attacks the Reagan era. Particularly, you can see how he is really skewed in the Mommy and Daddy naming of the two crazy people who own the house. It’s known that Ronald often called his wife Nancy Reagan “Mommy”. While Nancy called the Commander-in-chief “Ronnie”, you can still see, along with the rest of the film skewing his era of presidency, how the names Mommy and Daddy were certainly meant to really poke at the political & social commentary of The People Under the Stairs. Even at one point when Fool is looking around the house, he comes across a television set, which is clearly blaring graphic news reports of armed forces conflict (most likely they’re videos from the Gulf War which ended the same year this film was released). I mean, Daddy even stalks Fool and Leroy around the house, eventually shooting Lero, using a high-powered pistol with a red dot sight on it. The artillery Daddy is packing in that house is beyond simple home protection. I think there’s a little message about guns, or at least the military, under Reagan floating around here.
It all lines up, with the plot itself of course, to be very clear Craven doesn’t only intend this as a sometimes campy other times disturbing little horror flick. There’s more than meets the eye.
The acting here is generally pretty good. Rhames is decent in his small part. Really it’s McGill and Robie who shine here. They’re perfect for the role. Of course, they were also perfect on Twin Peaks, so I didn’t doubt they’d do a great job here. Everyone else fills out the cast just fine for the most part.
The People Under the Stairs is mainly all about the plot and story. I liked where it all went. It was disturbing and creepy. Plus, there are some fun and camp-ish moments that really fit well with the overall film. I really do think this movie works as a social metaphor. I’ve seen a few good theories. One in particular talked about how there was, especially around that time in the late 80’s and going into the 90’s, a big divide between those being oppressed and those who were aware of the oppression. Maybe even not so much the times, it’s something that always happens. Generally, until a situation completely boils over (such as it would in 1991 after the Gulf War ended and then Rodney was beaten a month later, one of the many, continuing brutalities committed by police against black men), there are pockets of society unaware of how serious a particular group is being oppressed, and often times eradicated. Here, we see a couple black people break into a home only to discover there are white people literally trapped in the walls. The divide between these two groups being held down are Mommy and Daddy, perfectly representative of Ronald Reagan and his administration in the White House.
I don’t know – maybe it’s nonsense. But I happen to agree with the person who was giving out the theory. Others seem to agree. I don’t mean it’s a perfectly and amazingly profound film, it’s still a weird and wild horror, but there is definitely something else behind it. Craven intended The People Under the Stairs to speak both to horror fans, as well as those looking for a bit of social commentary in their movie-going experience.
As a film, I’d absolutely have no problem saying this is worth 4 out of 5 stars. I think Craven has taken a few missteps in his career, but this is not one of them. Some don’t particularly put this at the top of his filmography. Me, however, I believe it’s one of the better written horrors Craven has done simply because there is bit more meat to it; it isn’t all blood and guts and scares. There is a little dark comedy, some hammy acting, and disturbing moments, all wrapped into one package. I dig it.
The Blu ray is not great. Aside from the picture, there is nothing worth talking about. Literally nothing. You can put on subtitles, pause the film, or look through its chapters. Other than that? Don’t count on wiling away the hours on special features. There are none at all. Too bad. I wouldn’t have minded a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, a featurette or two. Nothing here.
It’s still worth it to own this fun horror on Blu ray. The picture quality is fabulous. Makes a great 1990’s horror classic look pristine. If you haven’t yet experienced The People Under the Stairs do yourself a favour and watch it soon. Especially if you’re a fan of Craven; this one deserves more attention and less ridicule. I think it’s a solid horror, a little different from most. There are even some pretty gory bits just before the hour mark hits. This definitely stands out among a lot of shitty 1990’s horror.