THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)
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The People Under The Stairs is just another example of director Wes Craven’s versatility as he treats us to a darkly humored tale of urban horror. Story finds young “Fool” (Brandon Adams) on his 13th birthday finding out his mother is ill and his family is about to be evicted from the ghetto tenement they live in. Street tough Leroy (Ving Rhames) talks the boy into helping him get payback and a paycheck by robbing the house of the reclusive rich landlords. Once entering the former funeral parlor that is home to the bizarre Robeson’s (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), Fool finds himself in a house of horrors that includes, kidnapping, murder, cannibalism and…the people under the stairs!
While Craven certainly gives his flick some disturbing moments, he tells his story with a very twisted sense of dark humor as we follow our heroic teen as he tries to escape the virtual fortress of horror. The legendary director has a good time filling his house full of devious and deadly traps, the psychotic Robesons and the tormented souls they keep in the basement. The movie moves quickly, thought could have benefited, pace-wise, from being a few minutes shorter and there is enough action and laughs to keeps us entertained. Sure, the film’s messages about ghetto life and the vastly uneven distribution of wealth between the haves and have-nots is a bit too obvious, but we can overlook that since we are having ghoulish fun with the story those messages are attached to. Despite the humorous tone, Craven doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore and the FX portraying the carnage and the house’s hidden inhabitants are well done and shown in just the right amounts to keep them effective. The house itself is a creepy fun-house of secret doors, hidden passages, traps, bones and cobweb filled rooms…and if that’s not enough, we have Everett McGill running around in his bizarre S & M gear that he wears when on the hunt. It’s loaded with atmosphere and is a fun flick with a ghoulish sense of humor that still holds up well almost a quarter century later.
Craven also has a good cast to portray his oddball characters. Young Brandon Adams is quite an engaging and noble hero as young “Fool”. An inner city teen who, despite his nickname, is wise beyond his years and is tough when he needs to be, but has a surprising sense of honor for a kid his age and the hard life he lives. Adams does a good job making him three dimensional and very likable. Everett McGill reaches near Bruce Campbell levels with his borderline slapstick portrayal of the weird and put-upon Robeson. He may be a twisted killer, but conveys the essence of a man who truly never gets a break…especially when dealing with Fool. Wendy Robie is equally creepy as his disturbed sister and one can truly believe of the two, she is the one to really be scared of. A.J. Langer is sweet, naive and sympathetic as the Robeson’s captive “daughter” Alice. She has lived in captivity all her life, but knows she is being mistreated and bonds with Fool as she sees a possible means to finally seeing the outside world. Rounding out the main cast is Ving Rhames, who is effective as the tough, street crook Leroy, pretty Kelly Jo Minter, who is sweet and street-wise as Fool’s tarot card reading sister Ruby and Sean Whalen is likable as Roach, one of the escaped captives loose in the house’s walls. A good cast for a very offbeat film.
Maybe not the best of Craven’s work, but it is an original and fun flick. It entertains us with a bizarre and twisted sense of humor without sacrificing the tense action, chills or gore. It may get a little preachy, especially in the last act and could have had a bit tighter with it’s running time, but overall, is ghoulish fun and another example of how versatile Craven was as a filmmaker.
Wes Craven 1938-2015
3 kitchen knives.
This is one of my favorite movies. It blew my mind when I realized that Big Ed & Nadine from Twin Peaks were the evil landlords.
And they were so good in it. Everett McGill was in Bruce Campbell territory.
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