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People Under the Stairs, The (1991)

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Score: 7/10

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 42 min.

Release Date: November 1st, 1991 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Wes Craven Actors: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen, Kelly Jo Minter

W

es Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” presents a wholly unique idea for a horror film – but isn’t quite able to pull it off. Phenomenal acting by the damnable ghetto owners and an unlikely 13-year-old hero add to the singularity, but the repetitious hunting through the walls of the prison-like house of horrors and the lack of victims makes the film more of an adventure than an exercise in nail-biting terror. It’s a fun little project, though not nearly ambitious enough to rank amongst the best of Craven’s efforts.

13-year-old Poindexter (Brandon Adams), nicknamed “Fool” by his friends, is looking for an uncomplicated way to help his family pay for rent and his mother’s looming medical operation. But no easy, immediate solution presents itself. When older accomplice Leroy (Ving Rhames) and his buddy Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) hatch a plan to rob the house of the seldom seen Robeson family, which owns the entire ghetto area where they all reside, Fool is in for much more than he bargained.

Dressed in an electrician’s garb, Spenser manages to con his way into the mysterious home of “Mom” and “Dad” Robeson to look around. But when he doesn’t come back, Leroy and Fool break in – only to discover that the sadistic parents have stored away dozens of zombie-like, tortured youths in their enormous basement. Battling Prince (the ravenous guard dog), the shotgun-toting Dad, and the knife-wielding Mom proves to be the nightmare of a lifetime as Fool and a young captive girl named Alice (A.J. Langer) struggle to escape the fortress of fright alive.

The highlights of the film are Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, who embody the terrifying Mom and Dad with such over-the-top depravity that audiences can’t help but laugh and shiver simultaneously. Dad parades around in bondage gear yelling up a storm, repeatedly claims to serve a greater good, and allows little Alice to uncomfortably subsist – provided that she stay mute and blind to the atrocities around her. In his attempt to nab the perfect boy specimen, Dad keeps the lobotomized rejects locked away in the basement – but one has escaped, and now clambers through the crumbling walls of the house, aiding Fool and Alice in their plight. Mom is equally crazy, intent on killing anyone who sets foot in the house, and making sure the doorknobs are electrified, the metal shutters are sealed, the windows are barred, and a bevy of deadly booby-traps are in place.

“The People Under the Stairs” is a combination of a grand escape adventure and a slasher flick; there are moments of bloody violence, but Craven has chosen to side more with suspense and mystery to keep viewers transfixed. Although much of the film is too exaggerated and flamboyant to be scary, the chills garnered from helpless children trying to elude armed adults is undeniably effective (small versus large and inexperienced versus formidable are standard motifs to elicit sympathy and fear). There’s also some subtle subtext on the grotesqueries of capitalism, socioeconomic rifts, and confused race relations, though these are often overlooked for the basic concepts of inhumanity, oppression, and revolution. The film may not stand out as the best of the director’s oeuvre, but it’s grown on audiences over the years, even prompting Hollywood to consider a sequel or remake with Craven at the helm (at one point, discussed for a 2010 release).

– Mike Massie

 



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