A Cinemasochists Second Look At Wes Craven…
The People Under The Stairs (1991)
Wes Craven's career has been to hell and back. He's made game changing films, but has also fumbled enough times to make a lesser director retire. We all know Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream, but what about Deadly Friend or Music of The Heart? Do THOSE hold up? I'm going to cherry pick some of the lesser known Wes Craven films and, in typical Cinemasochists form, see if they're worth your time or as bad as they've been made out to be.
When Wes Craven writes his own films, there tends to be a social subtext that generally gets lost in the grim, macabre, and sometimes darkly funny situations he puts his characters in. For example, Last House On The Left is about the death of innocence and the death of peace and love, but it's hard to think of any social relevance because all you can see is a horrible, brutal rape and the over the top carnage that follows. With People Under The Stairs, which Craven also wrote, he creates a post-Reagan, post-Nuclear world where classes are as divided as ever and suburban secrets are far darker than you could imagine.
A 13 year old boy from the ghetto, nicknamed Fool, (played confidently by Brandon Adams from The Mighty Ducks/Sandlot/Moonwalker) is in desperate need to help his cancer ridden mother and hooker sister pay the rent so he and his family won't get evicted. A family friend (Ving Rhames) aids Fool in breaking into their landlords creepy old house, where there is some gold allegedly hidden. We come to find out that the landlords (played by Wendy Robie and Everett McGill, respectively) are a pair of insane, racist maniacs who hide stolen children in their basement. What comes next is a cat and mouse game as Fool and their daughter Alice (AJ Langer) with help from the people under the stairs, try to escape the trap filled house and hopefully claim the hidden money so Fool and his family can pay the rent.
Craven claims this story was inspired by a newspaper article he read in which a house gets burglarized and when the authorities arrived, they discovered children hidden in various rooms without any escape. This breakdown of class and of white suburban life has been a theme Craven comes back to, and this film, arriving just one year before the LA Riots, seems quite poignant. However, these themes tend to disappear because the film is basically scene after scene of brutal and brutally funny set pieces that tend to take away from the point. It ends up coming off more insanely, almost David Lynch-y funny than it does scary and unfortunately, the "people under the stairs" have very little screen time. However, the performances by Mommy and Daddy are so over the top you can't help but to laugh with them as they mercilessly chase Fool and their daughter through the halls while dancing around in leather bondage and a totting a shotgun. It's too strange to NOT laugh. In fact, Craven cast both McGill and Robie after having seen them playing similarly twisted characters on Twin Peaks a year earlier.
People Under The Stairs was released in the fall of 1991 to mixed reviews and better than expected box office. As strange as it is, the film has become a sort of cult classic and one of the more celebrated Wes Craven films. After watching it again, I really do think it holds up. There were basically no special effects, the humor is more broad than topical and it's ambitions are more internal than external, which helps in making it live past a normal movie shelf life.
Even though Craven's intentions ended up lost in the gore and mayhem, the film is perhaps as fitting to watch now as it ever was.
Cinemasochists Score: -3
(0 being tolerable and -10 being the worst)
You can rent the DVD on Netflix or rent on any VOD outlet, including Amazon or Vudu.