The People Under The Stairs
I'm more worried about the skull over the roof
The term “master of horror” is thrown around a lot. It's attached to names like George Romero, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, John Carpenter, and whoever directed Sex In The City. One person that has almost always received that title is Wes Craven. With a resume including such massive horror movies as A Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House On The Left. Craven has also shown a desire to work in a mix horror with comedy, sometimes to mixed results. Movies like Shocker and Vampire In Brooklyn were less than stellar in terms of quality and box office draw. Were they just terrible movies or do people not want to see lighter horror movies?
The People Under The Stairs is a 1991 horror film starring Brandon Adams (The Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot) as Pondexter “Fool” Williams. Fool lives in the slums of Los Angeles with his sick mother. His family are about to be evicted when Leroy (Ving Rhames, Dawn Of The Dead, Pulp Fiction) recruits Fool to help with a robbery. Supposedly, the Robeson house outside of the city contains priceless gold coins. After a failed attempt at getting in the house with Fool dressed as a Boy Scout, Leroy's accomplice Spenser gets in dressed as a utility man. When Spenser doesn't return, both Leroy and Fool break into the house, narrowly escaping a guard dog. The are unaware that this is no normal house and the Robeson's are no normal family. Daddy (Everett McGill, License To Kill, Under Siege 2) and Mommy (Wendy Robie, Twin Peaks, The Glimmer Man) are a deranged, racist incestuous couple who terrorize and abuse their daughter Alice (A.J. Langer, Escape From LA, My So-Called Life). Fool ends up in the cellar where he comes across a group of deformed men. Terrified, he runs back up stairs and finds Leroy. Fool and Leroy discover the house is heavily fortified with unbreakable windows, automatic locks, and electrified door knobs. Daddy shoots and kills Leroy while Fool is able to escape through a labyrinth of tunnels in the house, thanks to Alice. Alice explains that Mommy and Daddy has been kidnapping boys for years and when they disobeyed, they were imprisoned in the cellar, resorting to cannibalism to survive. Will Fool and Alice be able to escape this house of horror?
That's the best tic-tac-toe board ever
On the surface, The People Under The Stairs has a pretty good horror story. A kid, trapped in a house full of homicidal maniacs and cannibals trying to find his way out. It's the movie's execution that takes away a lot of the horror. It's as if Wes Craven saw Home Alone (which came out the year prior) and said “Hey, I want to do that, but with more gore!” While The People Under The Stairs is certainly a horror movie, it's not the horror movie I was expecting. It turns out, the people under the stairs are just abused humans with bad skin. Kind of disappointing. I figured the people under the stairs would play a more prominent role in the movie, but more focus was given on Daddy and Mommy. They are completely deranged, to the point where they can no longer be taken seriously. Seeing Daddy run around the house in a full “gimp” BSDM suit could have been scary and disturbing, but just came off as silly and unexpected. The movie isn't exactly a comedy, but it does have comedic moments, complete with goofy sound effects. The movie still manages to be entertaining, but not in a horror movie sort of way.
The movie has a good amount of action and a surprising amount of gore. If you ever wanted to see Ving Rhames rib cage, this is your chance. The People Under The Stairs goes a different route by having children as the main characters. I feel that making them a little older would have allowed the movie to be more serious in nature and tone. Instead, we get wackiness and nominal scares. The acting is good throughout, with Wendy Robie and Everett McGill putting in the best performances. The house is very cool and you're never sure what is going to happen next. Craven uses many different styles of filming throughout the film, using different angles, extreme close-ups, and sped-up action. The writing occasionally feels like a white person writing for black characters, but it never reaches the level of Mitt Romney saying “Who let the dog's out?” when taking a picture in an urban area.
"Welcome to the Republican National Committee."
The People Under The Stairs manages to be mostly entertaining even though it favored comedy over horror. I wanted more people under the stairs than what we were given, but Daddy and Mommy were such strong characters that it's a wash. The movie could have been very scary, but it's just too silly thanks to sound effects and over-the-top characters. The acting is very good and the direction is solid. I do have to question the movie using young children instead of teenagers in the main roles. It hobbled the potential for extreme content which would have added to the horror. While the overall themes in the movie are creepy, nothing is particularly scary. If you're looking for something a little different, give The People Under The Stairs a try.