The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #368

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: November 1, 1991
Sub-Genre: Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $6,000,000
Box Office: $31,347,154
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Shep Gordon, Wes Craven, Marianne Maddalena, Stuart M. Besser, Dixie Capp, Peter Foster
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Special Effects: Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero
Cinematography: Sandi Sissel
Score: Don Peake, Graeme Revell
Editing: James Coblentz
Studio: Alive Films
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A. J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen, Jeremy Roberts, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, Conni Marie Brazelton

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Suggested Audio Candy

Don Peake & Graeme Revell “The People Under the Stairs”


Wes Craven’s output over the past forty years has been a decidedly Neapolitan affair. In that time he has pummeled our defences with exploitation classics The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on The Left, given birth to a slasher pioneer with A Nightmare on Elm Street, reinvented the wheel with Scream, and provided numerous other high points with Deadly Blessing and The Serpent & The Rainbow both standing out from his overcrowded résumé. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Two years after Freddy Krueger introduced himself to the tune of chiming cash registers the world over, he attempted to repeat the feat with the lackluster Deadly Friend and in 1995 he reminded the free world that Eddie Murphy was officially past his prime with the risible Vampire in Brooklyn. Elsewhere, Red Eye was workmanlike if utterly uninspiring, while by-the-numbers fare such as My Soul To Take and Cursed cemented general consensus that his finest achievements lay behind him.

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The People Under The Stairs is one of his most diverse works and nothing like any of the other films which he has helmed over his protracted career. Having attempted to replicate his Elm Street success with 1989’s Shocker and leaving audiences largely unmoved, he decided to try something a little different and step away from his comfort zone once more. It’s something of a fairy tale of sorts, albeit an R-rated one, and exhibits his knack of offsetting genre norms against commentary on class and the wide-eyed wonderment of growing up. It’s a bizarre little film and not an altogether successful one but it is a curious affair which highlights the director’s willingness to think outside of the box and is nothing if not entertaining.

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It tells the tale of Poindexter (or Fool as he is commonly known), a young boy on the cusp of adolescence growing up in less than charmed surroundings amidst all manner of pimps, addicts, and light-fingered infidels. With his sister turning tricks and his bedridden mother unable to make ends meet, they are evicted from their home and his world threatens to come crashing down. When friend of the family Leroy (Ving Rhames) hatches a plan to rid the landlords of a particularly valuable vintage coin collection, he naturally jumps at the chance to play the man of the house. This involves breaking into their Gothic mansion and, once inside, he soon laments his decision.

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What begins as a routine burglary soon turns awry and he becomes trapped within the fixtures and fittings indefinitely with all manner of oddballs and kooks. The owners (played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie after Craven was duly impressed by them as spouses in Twin Peaks) are way beyond unhinged and run something of a tight ship. Their pastimes include BDSM, torture, and cannibalism and their domicile is a veritable labyrinth of winding tunnel networks and crawlspaces which provide seemingly no means of escape for the hapless little trooper. Both McGill and Robie are superbly cast as gatekeepers and revel in the debauchery like pigs in muck, while Brandon Adams gives a spirited turn as the resourceful Fool also. However, any movie called The People Under The Stairs will eventually be required to reveal the people under the stairs, and Craven conjures up some beauties.

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First there is Alice (A.J. Langer), the nutbag couple’s repressed daughter who desperately wants out and knows how to navigate the maze. Then there is Roach (a scene-stealing Sean Whalen), the lovable teenage vermin that scurries through this sprawling network akin to a timid shrew and vocalizes without elegance or any acknowledgement of curriculum. Whalen’s turn is particularly profound when you consider that the actor was 27 when he accepted the challenge. Within these walls, age is superfluous, and he fits the bill hand-in-glove, offering numerous moments to cherish. To add a little Tequila to the tap water, Craven also throws in some less than hospitable Rottweilers and ensures that the menace of the domineering Eldon and his fishy wife is never far away.

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If the humorous streak that has run through so many of Craven’s features seems incongruous here then that is because he’s deadly serious about infusing his house with consternation and any comedy becomes a distraction from the madness he courts. Having said that, there are many moments to savor courtesy of the glorious Whalen and equally magnanimous McGill and Robie. This is a movie with a far darker heart than we initially suspect, the house no place for a child of such tender years, and it is here that the director dodges a bullet. Any comedy is as blackened as Roach’s teeth as we are never allowed to rest on our laurels. Something wicked our way comes at any given moment, with only a thirteen-year old whippersnapper to hide behind.

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In the grand scheme of things, The People Under The Stairs perches comfortably within the middling echelons of this man’s work. You can see that he is struggling with his own identity as a director and is unaware of how to replicate the success of Elm Street but at least here he tries something unique. There is no other film from the era which defies classification quite so defiantly and no other film quite like it… period. I applaud him for taking a break from flogging a dead horse, after Shocker failed to galvanize his reputation a second time, and vacating his comfort zone. The bottom line is this Grueheads: Mother and Father are just as iconic as any other psychopaths on his bloated roster and I sure as shit wouldn’t wish to be tucked in by them every night.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: What Craven’s left hand takes away with a lack of gushing grue, his right giveth through good old-fashioned meanness of spirit. There’s even a little harmless cannibalism thrown in for good measure. Heaven knows what ma and pa would lay on for Thanksgiving.

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Read A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) Appraisal

Read Scream Appraisal

Read Last House on The Left (1972) Appraisal

Read Red Eye Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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