The People Under the Stairs (1991)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For a movie director that mostly does horror films, Wes Craven seems like a smart person. His films are not necessarily masterpieces except to many horror fans, but you can see what he shoots for and you have admire him for that. He adds terror and suspense to artistry and imagination. That was the case for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Serpent and the Rainbow”—“The People under the Stairs” is one of his more satisfying films, in my opinion. It’s a scary, well-acted horror movie with a good deal of imagination.

The main feature is a house full of gruesome surprises, ghoulish children in the basement, passageways in the walls, and a couple, only known as Man and Woman, that are psychotic, delusional, insane, grownup monsters. The people under the stairs in the basement, as the title refers to, are children that they stole as babies and punished very severely when they “heard too much, saw too much, or said too much.” They have stooped to cannibalism after being locked up downstairs for many years—they’re given flashlights to see their ways around and are given dead human meat—don’t laugh—to eat. But the people under the stairs are not the real monsters here—the Man and Woman are not to be messed around with. Anyone who breaks into the house or visits the house to look around (like police or salesmen) wind up murdered by the couple…and then eaten by the people under the stairs. There is no compromising with this couple—they will kill you mercilessly.

And what’s even scarier? They act like it’s their lives’ duty to “punish” people. After they murder mostly-innocent visitors, they say, “May they burn in hell.” They have their own insane delusions of religion and feel like they are supposed to act like this. Also, they have fun while doing this. The Man and Woman are jolly killers, if you can believe this. The Man, especially, is the one who yells at runaways trapped in the house, “Gonna kill yooouuu!!!” At one point, he dances around near the Woman and chants “I got him” multiple times, leaving the Woman to stand not amused and tell him in a firm, clear voice, “Prove it.”

Played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, the performances and personalities of the Man and Woman are so over-the-top that even when you shouldn’t, you laugh at certain moments. At the same time, you are frightened because of their behavior. They kill, they sic their bloodthirsty Rottweiler on those who are loose in the house, and they lock up and abuse their teenage daughter Alice (A.J. Langer) very severely, but not as bad as the people under the stairs. (Still, it’s pretty bad.) Alice is a terrified young girl who would like to get out of this house, away from this crazy couple. But nobody ever gets out of this house—the doors are all locked (the front door even gives an electric shock) and the windows are all unbreakable. Inside the house, there are many passageways from inside the walls that Alice’s friend Roach, one of the people under the stairs who has escaped the basement and is being hunted by the Man frequently. The house is like an amusement park haunted house with many surprises around every corner and secret ways to get through many areas.

The passageways come in handy for the young hero of the film—a thirteen-year-old Ghetto kid nicknamed “Fool” (Brandon Adams) who helps his older sister’s boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) break into the house to retrieve a hidden gold coin collection to cover Fool’s family’s apartment rent (one little flaw with this plan is that the Man and the Woman are the landlords to begin with, but oh well). Leroy is killed by the couple and Fool is forced to fight for his life—he makes friends with Alice who gives him some help, he is chased by the Rottweiler, he is menaced by the people under the stairs, and does battle with the Man and Woman throughout the film. This kid has so many tricks up his sleeve in the way he outsmarts these evil adults that this could be an R-rated “Home Alone.” It is very violent and gruesome and frightening—this is not for small children. The R rating is well-deserved.

I mentioned that “The People under the Stairs” was one of Wes Craven’s most satisfying films, and it is impressive. The house is a fun house of horrors, Brandon Adams is a likable resourceful hero, Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are a frightening couple, A.J. Langer is suitably sweet and scared as Alice, and there are genuinely frightening moments. I was cheering for Fool all along, I wanted him to escape this madhouse, and this is quite odd because when you have a child in jeopardy, it seems like a cheap move for suspense. But with the craziness of the villains, it almost seems like all bets are off. It’s this bravery (and again, imagination with the story and sets) that earns “The People under the Stairs” a recommendation from me.

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