The Film: 3/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
Poindexter (Brandon Adams), or “Fool” to his friends and family, lives in a distressed apartment building in the Los Angeles ghetto with his prostitute sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) and mother Mary (Conni Marie Brazelton). As if the fact that Mary is slowly dying of cancer and can not afford a life-saving surgery is not bad enough, Fool and his family are being forced to evict due to the lateness of their rent payments. Ruby’s “friend” (re: pimp) Leroy (Ving Rhames) comes up with an idea to break into the heavily-fortified home of their landlords and steal a valuable stash of gold coins that could potentially solve all their financial problems. He decides to bring along a reluctant Fool to teach him a thing or two about surviving in the real world. Once inside they find that the house is guarded by a vicious rottweiler (named “Prince”) and there are dangerous booby traps everywhere. When the landlords (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) return home Leroy and Fool split up to find the gold. Instead Fool discovers a frightened young girl named Alice (A.J. Langer) who is supposedly the landlords’ daughter. There is also the mischievous mute Roach (Sean Whalen), an occupant within the house’s walls. The further Fool ventures into the house the more he unravels the landlords’ disturbing secrets, including the true nature of “the people under the stairs”, and when the murderous couple become aware of his presence they vow to stop at nothing to kill him and preserve their diseased way of life.
The People Under the Stairs has a reputation for being one of Wes Craven’s “better” horror films. That does not put it in the company of Last House on the Left or A Nightmare on Elm Street, but neither is it forced to eat at the unloved weirdo table with the likes of My Soul to Take and Scream 4. It is perfect middle ground for a filmmaker who could carve up a shocking hunk of bloody, thought-provoking terror entertainment in his prime. As I have said before (in some other review, I think), horror and comedy are two of the most difficult genres to meld into one cohesive narrative. When the blending works the results are classics like An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead. However, the experiment often produces more disastrous mutant offspring.
I had known of People Under the Stairs for years before watching it in full for the first time recently. Back in my younger years Fangoria ran an article on its impending theatrical release and the bloody stills included made it appear that this would be a true return to form for the man who made us afraid to take road trips through the desert and to dream without having a baseball bat handy when we awake. A few years later the film received its basic cable TV premiere on the USA Network’s greatly missed Up All Night weekend late night movie marathon. I caught a few minutes of People while flipping channels but nothing I saw held my interest for long. Somehow it did not seem to be living up to the promise of that gore-drenched Fangoria article.
Much like his horror filmmaking peers David Cronenberg and George Romero, Wes Craven has always viewed the genre as an effective tool for communicating vital commentary on contemporary societal ills to its thrill-famished audience. But in People the socio-political content fails to reconcile itself with the violence and intensity, as does the frequent stabs at humor. At times I felt like I was watching a goofy slapstick comedy. Sam Raimi injected his lifelong love for Three Stooges-style hilarity in Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness to greater effect because those particular films were not necessarily trying to be nightmare-inducing horrors above all else. People Under the Stairs struggles for most of its running time trying to figure out exactly what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a prescient social satire about modern-day racial oppression through the economy rather than physical intimidation and violence? A gory comedy about a twisted family dealing with unwanted interlopers attempting to rob them blind? A dark and brutal horror epic? It would be impossible for a single film to be all these things with any degree of success, and it is that inability to figure out the storytelling direction truest to its intentions that ultimately renders The People Under the Stairs little more than a noble failure.
At least the movie is fun to watch, but it is hard for me to become invested in the safety of its main character Fool, played by the not-quite-believable but not annoying either Brandon Adams, when there never seems to any real threat to his life in the story. The central villains are two crazed whack jobs with too much money and not enough going on upstairs to properly deal with a problem when one arises. The father (Everett McGill, who could outact most Oscar winners with just his neck) runs around the house wearing a leather bondage suit while blasting huge holes in the walls with a rifle like a deviant Elmer Fudd. Fool plays the role of his Bugs Bunny, subjecting the nutty patriarch to constant comical humiliation and gaining the upper hand in nearly every confrontation. In one scene the father gets bonked with a rock fired from a slingshot by the mute Roach and it surprised me that Craven (who also wrote the screenplay) did not think to add a goofy sound effect for that desired effect since there is not a single trace of terror and suspense in the interior chase scenes. The People Under the Stairs could easily be mistaken for a more violent Home Alone sequel.
Great horror films like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre could unexpectedly bring in some dark humor to enhance the spiraling lunacy of certain scenes without undermining the intended effect to terrify the audience. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is one of the best when it came to crossbreeding mirth and mayhem in equal doses. Even Freddy Krueger in the first Nightmare on Elm Street pursued some of his victims with frightening amusement. In the over-the-top antics of the insane landlords Craven is clearly trying too hard for comedy, when he should have instead dialed down the jollity and amped up the menace.
Adams’ performance threw me off at times because his insistence on wisecracking his way through the suburban nightmare he has unwittingly plunged into makes him come across as too much of a “movie kid” rather than a plausible character. Towards the end when he has the father cornered he pauses to deliver a cheesy action hero one-liner and the disturbed dad immediately turns the tables. But Adams is good at navigating through the odd plot with his dignity intact. McGill always gives good evil, his skull perennially in danger of erupting through his facial skin, and Robie (best known to Twin Peaks as the eye patch-sporting Nadine Hurley) portrays his shrieking harridan of a significant other with all the deranged abandon of Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Younger actors A.J. Langer (Escape from L.A.) and Sean Whalen (Twister) underplay their characters with vulnerability and childlike wonder on the opposite end of the acting spectrum. Years before he rose to the forefront of big screen badasses in Pulp Fiction and the Dawn of the Dead remake Ving Rhames had tremendous presence and plays his overbearing tough guy with the right note of world-weary sincerity and good humor. Sometimes he acts like he is in a completely different movie, which comes as no shock to me because People Under the Stairs tries to be several of them at the same time. I liked seeing Kelly Jo Minter (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) switch gears midway through the film from concerned sister to gusty community organizer when he takes a stand against Robie. Bill Cobbs (New Jack City) is trucked in late in the story to awkwardly deliver an expositional speech explaining the back story of the landlords, but at least he does so with honest professionalism. Jeremy Roberts (Running Time) and John Mahon (L.A. Confidential) do well in smaller supporting roles.
The People Under the Stairs reunited Craven with his Hills Have Eyes composer Don Peake, and Peake’s music is rather unexceptional but does manage to hit a few memorable notes on occasion. The production design by Bryan Jones (This is Spinal Tap) perfectly captures the depraved, squalid conditions in which the landlords and their ill-gotten “children” dwell, and they are lit to blood-freezing effect by cinematographer Sandi Sissel (Salaam Bombay!). The gruesome effects were provided by the always great Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger in the midst of their transition from B-grade horror to A-list Hollywood spectacle. The blood and gore in this film are pretty subdued but the KNB boys still conjure up a few lingering images, from the pale and hideous of the titular cellar dwellers to the skinned and gutted remains of one unfortunate victim. There is enough red meat on this plate to make a decent meal for the seasoned gorehounds.
The high-definition digital transfer of The People Under the Stairs was funded by Universal Pictures and is presented in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It does not look much better than an upconverted DVD transfer but at least it is vastly superior to the quality of a new VHS copy or cable broadcast print. Even in its darker scenes People looks very bright and that has been retained for this Blu-ray. Colors are muted but serviceable and the fine film grain is present without overpowering the overall quality of the transfer. Arrow has opted to port over the original uncompressed English Dolby sound mix in 2.0 LPCM audio. The elements of the mix are nicely balanced, the music and dialogue are kept at volumes that can be boisterous but never threaten to drown each other out, and there are no traces of distortion or deterioration. English subtitles are also included.
The supplements included here by Arrow are all exclusive to this release. What we get is modest in comparison to some of the company’s best titles but fortunately there is some good value in these extras. Starting things off is an audio commentary with star Adams, moderated by Calum Waddell. Adams has a good memory when it comes to recalling details of his work on the film and his recollections mesh well with Waddell’s enthusiastic line of questioning.
Next up are a quartet of retrospective interviews with director Craven (25 minutes), actors Langer (14 minutes) and Whalen (14 minutes), and Final Destination screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick (9 minutes). The first three focus primarily on the making of the film while Reddick, who had nothing to do with People Under the Stairs, talks about how he came to appreciate the social commentary embedded in the narrative upon repeat viewings.
The original theatrical trailer closes out the disc-based extras. The Blu-ray will also come with new cover art designed by Stephen R. Bissette and a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay about the film and original archive stills.
The People Under the Stairs is hardly Wes Craven at his best, but free from the constraints of major studio horror filmmaking he delivers a twisted, darkly comedic thriller with a fair amount of fun to be had if you are in the right frame of mind. Fans of the film will want to upgrade to a region free Blu-ray player just so they can own this solid Arrow Video release.