The People Under The Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991) Made at a point in the career of writer/director Wes Craven when he could clearly make whatever the hell he wanted (the meta madness of New Nightmare was to follow shortly), The People Under The Stairs just might be the iconic horror director’s strangest movie. It’s the sort of thing that could only get produced by a studio when the filmmaker comes into the production as a brand name. Equal parts social commentary, bizarre fairy tale, grisly gore horror, and dark comedy, there’s really nothing else quite like it. It’s arguable that the overly ambitious flick perhaps flies off the rails from time to time (particularly in the ludicrous ending), but the movie is just so weird and creative overall that any horror fan needs to sample it at least once. Thankfully the good folks at Shout Factory have pulled out all the stops to ensure that any horror obsessive who decides to take a trip down Wes’ wild stairs will now have an ideal disc to stick into their player.
The film takes place in an early 90s ghetto and a vaguely fairy tale universe. Our hero is a pint-sized young African American named Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams), who along with Ving Rhames (in the 90s, you weren’t allowed to make a movie without a part for Ving. That’s a fact) break into their wealthy slumlord’s house in search of “treasure.” Of course, this being a Wes Craven flick, things aren’t what they seem. The house is run by a psychotic Mommy and Daddy (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, fresh off of their hubby and wifey duties on Twin Peaks) who have been driven insane by generations of incest and religious fundamentalism. They have two children who have never left the house. One is a terrified young girl (Aj Langer), the other is a teen boy named Roach (Sean Whalen) who had his tongue cut out and lives in the walls. There are a number of other unofficial family members, those pesky people who live under the stairs from the title: kidnap victims and forgotten children turned into feral human monsters in a dungeon prison. Plus those loving parents also dabble in cannibalism (yep, that old ditty). So, it’s not exactly a great place for a kid like Fool to be trapped.
You wouldn’t think it from that plot description, but the movie was actually inspired by a true story. Just like the factual account that inspired Elm Street, Wes only took the most basic beats from reality: suburban neighbours called the police when they saw African Americans breaking into their neighbour’s house and when the cops arrived they found abused children hidden inside who had never left the house and spoke their own language. Craven took that general outline as well as it’s implied themes of racism and social injustice and transformed it all into a kooky horror fairy tale. Wes was of course a former English professor and was intrigued by the literary roots of the horror genre that he found himself working within, so he became fascinated by the concept of selling a classical fairy tale as a hard R 90s horror flick. In addition to that, he also layered on levels of insane social satire (everything from 99% over-privilege to the gulf war and the perversity of family values gets the writer’s surreal humour treatment) and buckets of gore.
That’s a hell of a lot of baggage for one goofy horror romp to contain and indeed The People Under The Stairs does sag under the weight of Wes’ excess of ideas. Thankfully, they were also quite good ideas, so there’s still plenty to enjoy. In particular, anything involving Wendy Robie and Everett McGill’s nutball parents (loosely modeled on Nancy and Ronald Reagan in bondage gear) is a delight and the horror set pieces represent some of the director’s finest work. Where things falter slightly is in the combination of the sincere fairy tale drama and heightened surreal satire. It’s often hard to get wrapped up in the attempts at human drama and warm fantasy given all of the blood-soaked carnage and splatstick satire. There are times when it feels like Craven can’t quite decide on the tone of his tale and the audience might suffer a little whiplash trying to hold it all together in their heads. Thankfully the tone is ultimately so goofy and the pacing so relentless that it’s easy to get swept in the madness and enjoy it all as pure genre fun.
Wes might not have taken The People Under The Stairs too seriously but Shout Factory certainly have, delivering a stunning new transfer and uncompressed 5.1 surround mix. The twisted production design and gooey effects by KNB have never looked better and that makes a big impact in easily one of Craven’s most visually impressive features. Even better is the special feature section, which is absolutely loaded. Things kick off with an excellent commentary by Craven who is prompted by a moderator to give one of his most detailed and insightful discussions of the film to date. The (now grown) child actors also get their own track, which is a bit chaotic but sells just how much fun they clearly had making the movie. Ontop of that co-star Wendy Robie, cinematographer Sandi Sissel, composer Don Peake, and the KNB effects team all chip in their own 10-20 minute interviews filled with enthusiasm and fond memories. Finally, the disc wraps up with some old behind-the-scenes footage, trailers, and TV spots. It’s a stacked disc for an underrated genre gem filled with new contributions from of the cast and crew who clearly look back on this oddball horror flick fondly. The People Under The Stairs never quite became the cult classic it deserves, but looking back on it now the themes remain troublingly prescient and perhaps now is the time for the cult to take off.