Blu-ray Review: The People Under the Stairs (1991)

The People Under the Stairs BR CoverDistributor: Arrow Video

BBFC Classification: 15

Director: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, Ving Rhames, Kelly Jo Minter, Sean Whalen

The People Under the Stairs may not be the first title that leaps off the page when looking back at the career of Wes Craven – and let’s be honest, when you’ve got A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream and The Hills Have Eyes in your portfolio then it would be easy to overlook some of the others – but it’s a film that deserves a closer look as it touches on several themes that the director likes to dwell on in his films but also throws in a few other things that you may not associate with Craven, and as such it’s something of a curveball in his output, which automatically makes it interesting.

A young streetwise kid named Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) joins forces with his sister’s friend Leroy (Ving Rhames – Piranha 3D) and his buddy Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) to rob the house of the Robesons, a weird couple who own the house that Fool, his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter – A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) and his cancer-stricken mother live in. However, once the amateur robbers break in to the house they discover that ‘Daddy’ Robeson (Everett McGill –Heartbreak Ridge) and ‘Mommy’ Robeson (Wendy Robie – Vampire in Brooklyn) aren’t your average wholesome American family and that the cavernous house holds more than just the gold coins that would pay for Fool’s mother’s cancer treatment.

Wes Craven can be a bit hit-or-miss as a director and The People Under the Stairsoriginally came out during a period where Craven couldn’t get arrested, his previous three films being the dull Deadly Friend, the excellent but commercially unsuccessfulThe Serpent & the Rainbow and the contrived attempt at creating a new horror icon that was the terrible Shocker. Which probably goes someway to explaining why The People Under the Stairs often gets passed over; on the other hand, it could be because it’s very different to anything the director had done up to that point.

The People Under the Stairs is tonally very light compared to most of Craven’s output but the theme of something rotten going on under the surface that permeates pretty much all of his work is there, along with several horror movie clichés that work because of the fairy tale nature of the story. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street there is also the implied idea of twisted sexuality, incest and some scenes of non-sexual child abuse that may be uncomfortable for some viewers but if you were to analyse the fairy tales that you were taught at school then you’d probably never read another Brothers Grimm book again for fear of reprisal. In this context, however, all of the individual pieces work together to create a bizarre world that you wouldn’t necessarily credit to Wes Craven considering where his career was at the time but there is a freshness about it that belies some of its content.

Compared to some other captive-in-a-strange-house films and taken at face value, The People Under the Stairs may seem a little underwhelming and even a bit silly in places but put it into the context of when it was made and the things that it’s trying to address – it’s probably best to watch the interview with Wes Craven first for a bit of background – and it has a charm all of its own. It’s pretty slickly made, with Craven using Dutch angles for a bit of kitsch value, the performances are all good – especially Everett McGill (who delivers surely the best “Shut the f*ck up!” in any film ever) and Wendy Robie – and there’s a few nasty gore scenes that are more the fun kind of gross-out than disturbing. It isn’t a perfect film by any means, and although there are those that throw accusations of racism thrown at it – the idea of poor black people stealing from middle class white people – it doesn’t really go down that route. If anything, its portrayals of characters may be more stereotypical than prejudice but more towards the idea of a perfect suburban lifestyle and the madness it takes to achieve it. Like most things, it’s there if you want to see it, intentional or not (and if you listen to Wes Craven talking about the original inspiration for the film, it’s not). Nevertheless, The People Under the Stairs remains a strange entry in the filmography of Wes Craven but strange in a good way. It showed that Craven was willing to experiment and expand on his own parameters as a filmmaker – remember, this is pre-New Nightmare and Scream – and although it may be a mad as a box of frogs it’s an entertaining film that is definitely worth a look for newcomers or a revisit if it’s been a while. Burn in Hell…

The People Under the Stairs

Special Features: Audio commentary with star Brandon Quentin Adams, moderated by Calum Waddell, Fear, Freud and Class Warfare featurette where director Wes Craven discusses the timely terrors of The People Under the Stairs, Behind Closed Doors: interview with star A.J. Langer, Silent But Deadly: interview with actor Sean Whalen, Underneath the Floorboards: Jeffrey Reddick, creator of The Final Destination series, recalls the lasting impact of The People Under the Stairs, original trailer, reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Stephen R. Bissette, collectors booklet featuring new writing on the film by Brian J. Robb, author of Screams & Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven, and illustrated with original archive stills.

UK Release Date: 4th November 2013

Arrow Films – Website

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