Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
August 20th marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of horror master Wes Craven, which prompted me to redouble my efforts to finish watching through his deceptively vast filmography. Considering that my last foray into his work was the surreally compromised Cursed, I decided to treat myself to the best of his movies that I haven’t seen yet, at least according to consensus opinion: The People Under the Stairs. I made the right choice.
Equal parts goofy, clever, disturbing, and socially aware, The People Under the Stairs is like directly communing with Craven’s spirit. All of his most beloved qualities are present, dressed in their Sunday best.
Which didn’t mean much in the fashion-impaired 90’s, but still.
In The People Under the Stairs, Fool (Brandon Adams) lives in the ghetto with his family and his ailing single mother. They’re the last family standing in their crumbling apartment complex, which the landlords want to tear down and replace with office buildings, and they’ve been given one day to pay the rent before they’re evicted. Friend of the family Leroy (Ving Rhames) convinces Fool that the only way to get the money is to rob the landlords themselves, who are said to have a vast collection of gold coins.
They break in and soon discover that their crime might not be so easy. The landlords, who call themselves Mommy (Wendy Robie) and Daddy (Everett McGill), look like the perfect suburban couple, but their inescapable house hides sinister secrets, including their abused daughter Alice (A. J. Langer) and a basement full of mutilated boys they’ve captured in an attempt to find the perfect son.
It’s cheaper than adopting, I guess.
I’d say that The People Under the Stairs is the most Wes Craven-y movie he ever made, but for the fact that it doesn’t feature a single dream sequence. That was kind of his thing. But for a movie with both feet planted firmly in reality, it’s decidedly surreal. It’s another twisted nightmare vision of white suburbia, but from a unique angle. Instead of depicting the skeletons in the closet of a nuclear family from the perspective of their own children, Craven has a complete stranger discover the abuse and evil while trapped inside with it.
The People Under the Stairs is also the Craven movie with the most consistent setting, as over 80% of the film takes place in and around the landlords’ household. So as much as it is a perfect evocation of his favorite themes and styles, it’s also a wholly distinct entry in his filmography. All of these factors combine to create a film that is claustrophobic, startling, and extremely special.
Like getting engaged in a mineshaft.
But enough of my Craven fandom pontification. What I really want to impress upon you about The People Under the Stairs is that it’s freakin’ awesome. It’s a no-holds-barred adventure through a cavernous home full of secret doors, booby traps, and hidden crawlspaces, a non-stop thrill ride of blood and guns and slavering dog jowls. It’s everything Don’t Breathe wanted to be but couldn’t quite muster the energy.
It’s also an over-the-top geyser of goofiness, but that only highlights the insanity of the situation. This delicate tonal balance rests easily in the hands of Everett McGill and Wendy Robie who, as Twin Peaks alums, know exactly how far to take things. McGill is hilarious, mugging through his scenes like he’s a fourth Stooge in a leather gimp suit, and Robie goes full Mommie Dearest, channeling her best Grand Diva as a shrill, knife-wielding harpy. Their insane couple is like Ward and June Cleaver by way of Tobe Hooper: Unpredictable and captivating, sublimely funny yet effortlessly chilling.
This vein of silliness is actually perfect for the film, because it creates a heightened reality that allows for hyperbolic horror to enter the picture. The family’s basement of reject children might have been laughable in a different movie, but in People Under the Stairs it’ a disturbing yet pitiful display. When Fool discovers this basement of horrors, the sight imprints itself on your mind as one of the iconic images of horror that you will remember until the end of time.
Or maybe that’s just me. But still. Great.
The People Under the Stairs is just plain fun chock full of clever dialogue and well-shaded, memorable characters. And none of that undermines its powerful but reasonably subtle anti-gentrification message. It’s a film about the cruelty other humans inflict upon one another, but it’s also a humanist fairy tale about how oppressed minorities can rise up and stand together as a community.
Seriously, Wes Craven was killing it in the 90’s. Between The People Under the Stairs, New Nightmare, Scream, and Scream 2, he was operating at the top of his game (Vampire in Brooklyn? Never heard of it), and this film is just one more dab of cement that solidifies his reputation as a true blue master of horror.
TL;DR: The People Under the Stairs is a gleefully campy, tense, massively underrated Craven gem.
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