Thursday, January 2, 2014

Movie Review: The People Under the Stairs (1991)

This isn't my first rodeo with The People Under the Stairs. I've seen it many times before many years ago, but when I saw it pop up on my Netflix suggestions, I thought it deserved another, fresher view. I knew that there was more to remember about this movie than just Ving Rhames's outfit. That hat is really hard to forget. Anyway, The People Under the Stairs is for sure an odd little flick, with a strange mesh of horror and comedy that doesn't always work the way it's supposed to. However, there's still enough of the good here and there to make it at least an interesting romp for horror fans.

After receiving an eviction notice from their ghetto apartment, young kid Fool helps his sister's friend Leroy break into their landlords's - the Robesons - house in order to steal a stash of gold coins they are rumored to have inside. They soon find themselves trapped in the fortress-like home with a pair of maniacal siblings who call themselves Mommy and Daddy, their bloodthirsty Rottweiler Prince, and Alice, their meek daughter who has only survived by following Mommy and Daddy's strict rules. The pair also keep a group of feral young boys locked in the basement, where they have been starved into cannibalism.

I've claimed before that Wes Craven is my favorite horror director. The dude has definitely got some classics under his belt - don't think I even need to name them here - but the dude has also got some downright weird and downright awful films in his oeuvre as well. The People Under the Stairs is not one of the classics, nor is it one of the awful ones either. Maybe it's not for everyone or maybe not everyone will really "get" it (I'm not even really sure that I get it) which is precisely why I think this one deserves a closer look. Like I said it's an odd duck. The Netflix description mentions it being like a fairy tale, and I think that's true. If there's a specific fairy tale this is based on, I don't know it, but I do see very fairy tale-like or fantastical elements in the story - the quest of the young hero, the evil stepparents, the treasure, the morality explanation at the end. Craven brings his own dose of twisted reality to this sorta-classic story and, thus, The People Under the Stairs was born.

Just to get this out of the way first, the biggest problem I have with the overall movie is the constant conflict of emotions in relation to what is happening. The way this normal house has turned into a fortress that no one can get out of, the fact that Mommy and Daddy have never been caught for any of the crazy shit they do, etc. leans me more toward liking the movie for its over-the-top whackiness that you couldn't possibly ever take seriously. But I know Wes Craven, and I know how he likes to throw in some kind of element, even subtly, to make the audience really uncomfortable, if only for a moment. It's hilarious watching Daddy wear full S&M gear to chase Roach through the house with a shotgun (that no one in the neighborhood hears until he fires it outside - whatevs). But then there's that shot of Daddy grabbing his crotch while in the attic where Alice is tied up alone. There's the horrible abuse that Alice suffers under Mommy, like scalding hot baths. Maybe you just can't let yourself to think that deeply about what's really going on here in order to enjoy the movie.

And there definitely is a lot to enjoy here, don't get me wrong. Mommy and Daddy, played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, are gloriously grotesque in their performances. They are very crazy, of course, but also slimy and weird enough in a way that makes you kinda like them because they are able to become hilarious fodder for Fool and Roach throughout the course of the movie. The amount of times they are able to overcome Daddy makes it almost slapstick and helps to ease a bit of the aforementioned uncomfortableness. The performance by the child playing Fool left a bit to be desired as his reactions to some things were not very believable sometimes, but he's definitely cute and memorable as the smart-talking ghetto kid who decides to take on the Robesons. A.J. Langer as Alice ("My So-Called Life, FTW) was probably my favorite as her performance was spot on in every on of her scenes.

The setting is definitely another talking point. The house that these supposedly "rich" people of the neighborhood live in is quite large though it doesn't look it from the outside, but very unkempt on the inside. Strange contradiction there. The house is also an almost unbelievable labyrinthine castle with crawlspaces between the walls, secret doors everywhere, and lots of strange and dangerous contraptions (the stairs, the spikes through the walls, the chute that the dog goes down). I loved it. Minus the cannibals in the basement and the crazy people owning it, this was almost like my dream house because it looked like it could be so much fun to live there. Clean it up a bit with some new paint, and I would totally be playing around in those crawlspaces, I'm not even joking. The house is another character in the story, and the way that it constantly changes on us is a way to keep the story interesting throughout because this is basically our only real location for the movie.

Survey says that despite an uneven tone, generally, The People Under the Stairs is kinda awesome. I didn't get into the gore in my review but when it's there it's pretty good... even though there could have been more. The movie is kooky, and I love kooky, so I'm giving this one a thumbs up.


  1. It's weird shit like this that I love about Wes. This is definitely one of fave my Non-ANOES horror films he made, the others being Deadly Friend and (gasp!) Shocker!

  2. Hey Michele! You need to watch it one more time. Hear me out... I think you may be too young to get the references to president and Democratic turncoat Ronald Reagan and his anorexic, clothes-horse wife Nancy Reagan. The Robesons are a twisted versions of them. Seen through the eyes of Wes Craven they are the money-grubbing first family of 80s politics who rob the poor while making sure nobody can see, hear or speak of their evils. The Robesons actually look a little like them. People Under The Stairs is social commentary masked as a horror movie.– and kinda brilliant!