Craven's influential, innovative slasher took horror to a new level in the '90s.
Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot
Directed by Craig David Wallace
Written by Aaron Martin
* For a review of the following episode, “Digging Your Grave With Your Teeth” – click here
The pilot for Chiller’s first series Slasher starts on Halloween in 1988, giving us a setup for the events to come. A husband and pregnant wife discuss Halloween plans, whether he’ll stay home with her instead of going to a party with his friend Alan. She tells him to take the scarf off his cowboy outfit, it’s too “Liberace“-looking. Then at the door arrives an ominously masked man who’s let in without question, assumed to be a friend obviously. But afterwards his friend Alan shows up. This immediately causes worry: “Who‘s that?” asks Alan. The murder begins, which gets pretty vicious before the killer slams the front door to the world. Police find a man with makeup around his eyes sitting there, holding a crying baby. Wow.
I’ve got to say, despite anything that might come later, this opening is appropriately savage for a series calling itself Slasher. We’re given a pretty neat little scene to start things off.Sarah Bennett (Katie McGrath) and her husband Dylan Bennett (Brandon Jay McLaren) move back to where she was born, in the town of Waterbury. They actually move right into her parents old house. So we know where this is headed. It’s got a great premise for the slasher sub-genre of horror. The cinematography is fairly solid, too.
Sarah and Dylan do their best to settle in. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Sergeant Cam Henry (Steve Byers). He’s an old friend of Sarah, so we have one of those almost staples of the slasher sub-genre – both the old friend and the young lawman in the hometown. Then she expresses to Cam wanting to meet with Tom Winston – the man that murdered her family. Yikes. Also, there’s the married couple Robin and Justin (Christopher Jacot/Mark Ghanimé), they’re her landlords. Fun characters. Although, I worry for them; maybe everyone around her is about to find themselves in danger.
Verna McBride (Mary Walsh) calls Sarah’s mother a “dirty slut“, right to her face. There’s obviously some kind of bad, bad blood between Verna and Sarah’s family. What could it be?
All these hometown secrets, the small town mindset, will surely come into play as the plot move on in this series. Sarah wants to start digging into the murder of her parents, and being a good husband Dylan goes along to get along. Helps a bit that Dylan is editor-in-chief for the newspaper in Waterbury. But when they watch a clip of Winston, his rage coming out on camera, it affects her deeply.
When Sarah sees someone following her, they wear a mask like the one worn during the murder of her parents. This begins a typical slasher chase scene, out in the dark, the shadowy streets at night almost swallowing her whole. Luckily, Dylan arrives and they end up coming across a group of young guys, which puts him at odds with them. Not a great start for them in the neighbourhood.
But one of the guys doesn’t leave. He ends up coming across the killer. Who does some serious damage to the kid. Already we see this slasher’s brutality. Must be someone else copycatting right? Or are we so sure?
Well Sarah goes to see Winston after all. He’s almost excited to see her, but she tells him: “You need to stop smiling.” She gives him a good earful about her life, what he did to her through killing his parents. But before she ends up walking out on him, as he can’t keep taunting, Winston says: “You have to immerse yourself in the past, Sarah; all of it. Find out what was going on in your parents lives 30 years ago, find what was buried in that house. No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar so that those that enter may see the light.” This spurs her on slightly, as it would. Even if this man’s a killer, his demeanour is too calm and too rational to completely ignore everything he’s saying.
Turns out there’s a reason why Verna hated Sarah’s mother – she made some pornographic movies with Peter, the husband of Verna. Definitely has a Scream-esque vibe. Although, it’s not copying. Just sort of a wink and nod to the Maureen Prescott plot of those films. Love how there are direct and indirect homages to the sub-genre’s most prevalent titles. This will surely continue as a recurring presence.
Verna’s over in the Bennett place snooping around. At the same time, Sarah shows a picture from the porn she found to Cam, who confirms it’s Peter McBride. Mystery swirls around the deaths of Sarah’s parents, yet Cam believes some things are “better left undisturbed.” Does Cam know more than he says?
Sadly for Verna, she is quite disturbed once finding the porn playing on the television at Sarah’s house; further than that, she removes the tape. Uh oh. There’s no telling what this could do to a woman like Verna, alone in that big house, lots of time to go crazy while drinking wine and obsessing over the newly discovered evidence. At the door someone rings, but when she answers no one’s there. More of the usual slasher elements. Leading to Verna’s encounter with the killer. And it is gruesome.
After seeing shadows in the window, Sarah makes the mistake of leaving her house, door open, and heading over to Verna’s place. Is writer Aaron Martin purposefully letting Sarah do this? If so, I’d say excellent use of typical slasher movie moments. If not, another long line of dumb slasher movie mistakes. Either way, it puts Sarah in the house where Verna was just being butchered. And she finds Verna before a brief encounter with the masked killer. A fall down the stairs renders her unconscious, left by the killer to survive along with the Peter McBride porn tape laid on her chest.
She wakes up in the hospital where Dylan and a police officer wait. Sarah tells the officer it was “the Executioner“, not Winston but “someone dressed like him“, which makes both men sceptical. Lots of interesting confusion is about to begin. Cam ends up hearing about the Executioner rumour from a woman on the street, and it definitely worries him in some way. What’s he keeping under wraps? There’s something.
Poor Dylan is slightly conflicted, being EIC at the newspaper. He does what’s possible to keep her out of the headlines and the aims of his journalists. Only so much he can do, though. He’s also personally interested; he ought to be, perhaps he needs to be wary of what’s coming next. And there’s more to Cam, too. His father is a local priest, he even promises to catch the killer, as if there’s more than simply duty. Is there more behind Cam, possibly his father? Excited to find out more.
This pilot sets up a good deal of suspense and tension. Lots to work off with Verna’s death, as well.Sarah tries to get more out of Winston after the murder of Verna, to see if he has some stake in it, if he’s egged on a copycat. He’s willing to help her, though, has nothing to do with it. “McBride died for a reason; why?” he asks. There’s an almost Hannibal Lecter-Clarice Starling vibe happening in this episode finale. Even some Se7en-ish stuff leaning towards the Bible as a reference for these new murders. Again, not copying. The homage is an interesting part of what makes Slasher work. It isn’t metafictional, but rather it comes to us through allusion to all this other material. It’s fun, and this series is fun.Not a perfect episode. That doesn’t matter. I’m still excited to see what will happen and grow out of all that’s been setup here in the pilot. Stay tuned with me for a recap and review of the next episode, “Digging Your Grave With Your Teeth” – soon to follow!
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.