The People Under The Stairs Review
Wes Craven has had a patchy career at best. For every Nightmare on Elm Street there has been a Vampire in Brooklyn, for every Scream there is Shocker (Both literally and figuratively). Despite this most of his films have their fans, no matter how bad they are. This is not unheard of in the horror genre; even the worst horror film ever will probably have one rabid fan that thinks it is a masterpiece. I saw The People Under the Stairs at the cinema on release and it definitely entered my collection as a guilty pleasure.
Horror plots can usually be scribbled on a post-it note and this one is no different. Fool (Adams) is a boy of about 12 and his family are about to be thrown out of their apartment by the owners (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). Leroy (Rhames), Fool’s sister’s boyfriend recruits Fool to help him break into the apartment block owner’s house as there are meant to be gold coins inside (shades of Oliver Twist here). Once they get inside the house they find out that the “couple” are not all they appear and they keep dreadful secrets, like the people they keep under the stairs. The rest of the film is a constant barrage of set pieces as Fool tries to escape from the shotgun toting owners, the vicious dog and the people under the stairs whilst saving Alice (Langer) from her “parents”.
The plot and script are not exactly sparkling but there are several interesting premises. The Alice situation definitely leans heavily on a child abuse angle, which in some scenes is very disturbing. Also the fact that the heroes are mostly black and/or poor whereas the villains are white and rich is also telling, but hardly biting social commentary. Many have misguidedly heaped praise on this film for this and/or for the fact it is a forerunner to Scream. Whilst there are a few self-referential nods to the horror genre I think Freddie’s New Nightmare deserves the title of forerunner rather than this film.
Most of the characters are cardboard cutouts, especially Leroy. Poor old Ving Rhames has practically nothing to work with here. The real standouts are the completely OTT and campy performances turned in by McGill and Robie. Most will recognise them from their husband and wife partnership in Twin Peaks. The couple they play in this film are very different but somehow there is a familiarity here. This is what the Twin Peaks couple would be like if they had watched too much hardcore S&M whilst dropping acid. It is difficult to describe their performances without spoiling the plot. One thing I will say to tease you a little is that McGill manages to pre-empt Pulp Fiction in a delightfully manic sequence. Both of these characters are completely insane and truly disturbing people. The OTT whooping and wolf howling may turn many people off but I find it hilarious and very watchable. This is the main thing the film has going for it, apart from this it is a run of the mill horror film. The rest of the cast is adequate for the most part with only A.J. Langer providing a standout performance as Alice.
Now most of you are going to be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the actual people who live under the stairs very much. Well the reason is that they aren’t really an important part of the film. They seem to only exist to add a little spice to the set pieces and to give us a reason to hate the bad guys even more. When we do see them they all look like a bunch of rock fan rejects and some of them could double for Iron Maiden’s Eddie on their next tour.
As guilty pleasures go this is probably one of my favourites. It has a distinctive 80’s look despite being made in ‘91 and this all adds to the charm. If it weren’t for the performances of McGill and Robie this film would sink into obscurity for me, whereas with them it is worth a 7.
Given the films lack of popularity, even amongst staunch horror fans, I wasn’t expecting too much from this Universal release. The packaging is perfunctory and has no chapter insert. The menu is static, dull and reveals the film’s 16 chapter stops.
This isn’t too bad given how bad it could’ve been. The picture is 1.85:1 anamorphic as shown theatrically. The print is fairly clean with only a few flecks and specks to mar it. The picture is quite soft in places but there is little grain or artifacting (which is good considering how many dark dusty scenes there are). The black level is adequate as is the shadow detail. Overall this is nothing to shout about but it is above average.
The only option here is the original DD2.0 stereo track. The track is clean, mostly free of hiss and the dialogue is audible and clear. The channel separation is actually handled quite well but the track is never very dynamic.
One trailer… That’s it, nothing else. Given Craven’s enthusiasm regarding commentaries I put the lack of extras here down to Universal not wanting to pay for one to be produced. This is a shame but not really a surprise.
This is a difficult film to recommend. I think it’s great fun and the maniacal antics of the couple that own the house always amuse me. The more casual horror fan may want to steer clear however. The disc is understandably average. The picture and sound are adequate and the extras non-existent. I hate to sound so negative about this release as this film has its place in the market and certain horror fans will love this.