The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the StairsSynopsis: Wes Craven, the director of The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker, locks you inside the most terrifying house on the street. Trapped inside a fortified home owned by a mysterious couple, a young boy is suddenly thrust into a nightmare.

The boy quickly learns the true nature of the house’s homicidal inhabitants and the secret creatures hidden deep within the house.

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The People Under the Stairs 5.0

eyelights: the performances. the set design.
eyesores: its central conceit. its uneasy mixture of suspense and comedy. its many nonsensical moments.

“Alice has been bad. She’s been feeding that thing between the walls again.”

‘The People Under the Stairs’ is a 1991 motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven. A curious blend of horror and comedy, it tells the story of an inner city kid breaking into his rich landlord’s home to pay for his mother’s medical treatments. In the house he finds danger.

And terror.

‘The People Under the Stairs’ is one of those movies I tentatively wanted to give another chance to. When I saw it on The Movie Network back in the day, I wasn’t much into horror films, so there was a chance that I wasn’t able to appreciate some of its… ahem.. finer qualities.

And given that I’ve become a minor fan of Craven’s work (albeit mostly for his two ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ films, the ‘Scream‘ series an ‘Red Eye‘)’ I thought it was only fair to revisit it. So I proceeded to pick it up from a local pawn shop for something like a buck and a quarter.

Two decades of movie watching didn’t help me appreciate it further.

The picture is basically the reverse of a home invasion movie, wherein our protagonists are trapped inside their own home with outsiders threatening them. Here the outsiders are trapped inside the home they broke into, with its crazy residents being a threat to them.

From that perspective, it’s original. But it simply can’t be taken seriously:

  • We have to believe that the house is so big that people could wander about it unchecked for lengths of time, maybe even get lost in it. From outside, it doesn’t look that impressive, no matter what our initially protagonists think while scoping it out.
  • We have to believe that it’s possible for the home owners to have rigged their home to lock people in, including automated systems, padlocks on the shatter-proof windows outside the house, mesh on the inside of the windows, door handles designed to electrocute, booby-traps in the basement, …etc.

Surely this couple couldn’t have set this all up themselves. And anyone who did it for them would have questions to ask, might even alert the authorities. At the very least there may be bylaw issues. It’s already questionable that they could afford all of this, but maybe they come from money.

  • The couple have been kidnapping children, so that they could have their own, for years, but no one’s ever noticed – even though they live in the city (a countryside setting would be more plausible).
  • The children, who inevitably fail to become agreeable, are dumped in the basement and become feral. But why keep them, when this means having to feed them and cleaning up after them? Given how ruthless the couple is, seems to me they would just dispose of those kids.
  • Why aren’t the now-grown up children in the basement a threat, collectively? It’s understood that they may have been hobbled in some way, but this is not properly established. I’d have thought that their collective strength would allow them to break free at some point.
  • Roach, one of the previous children, somehow escaped and has been living in the walls for years. Firstly, it doesn’t make sense that the walls are so wide that people can wander in them freely – just how big IS this house? Secondly, how does he feed himself or take care of his bodily needs? And, finally, how is it that the couple couldn’t track him down and rid themselves of his presence? Again, just how big IS this house?
  • How come our protagonists could wander about the house and make a racket, but the owners couldn’t hear them? Again, the size of the house comes into question – it doesn’t look THAT big. Secondly, it’s an old house, and these are usually notoriously not well sound-proofed – so you’d think that any noise would carry.
  • How come the couple couldn’t find our protagonists when they became aware of their presence in the house? Again, the house doesn’t look so big, but secondly, they must know it inside and out, so it should be easy to figure out where the noises are coming from and where their prey is likely hiding.
  • When Father starts chasing after them and after Roach, he dresses in bondage gear and blasts holes in the walls with a rifle, trying to get them. He’s irrational, causing massive damage to their house. Fine. They’re crazy. But when the cops are later sent by the kid’s family to check the place out, they actually don’t see any signs of these holes. Or don’t care. Either way, the holes should have raised alarms.
  • Later the kid, “Fool”,  calls child protection to the house but the couple pretend that all’s well. How did they make the place seem normal, seeing as they had no forewarning? How did they hide the shotgun holes, all the other weird stuff in the house and even silence the basement’s denizens? It’s simply impossible.
  • Where is that vicious attack dog, when it’s not roaming free attacking people?

And don’t get me started on the preposterous ending!

Look, I recognize that the film may have been designed as camp. This would explain some of the performances (Brandon Adams, who plays “Fool” is actually pretty good), and the ill-suited slap-stick that props up once in a while. But the tone is too inconsistent to let all of this slide.

The only things I really liked about it are the main cast, particularly Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as the couple (who, amusingly, also played a couple in ‘Twin Peaks’) and the inherent weirdness of the whole setting – it’s just really creepy to think you could get trapped in someone’s house.

Brrr…

Seriously, I don’t wholly dislike ‘The People Under the Stairs’. The basic conceit is good. I just wish that it had been delivered in a more credible way. Set it in a large countryside manor, owned by eccentric multi-millionaires and with a small tweak to the developments, it could be chilling.

I’d see a properly produced remake of this. I would.

Story: 4.0
Acting: 7.5
Production: 7.0

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 3.0
Violence: 4.0

Date of viewing: November 6, 2015

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2 responses to “The People Under the Stairs

  1. I once read an essay that insisted this is social satire, not a horror movie. It is supposed to be a critique of the Reagan era. The parents represent Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and “the people under the stairs” are the working middle class, who was under siege thanks to Reagan’s economic policies. I think Craven denied it, but the theory fits the story rather well.

    • That’s interesting. It’s a stretch (who does “Fool” represent? Or Alice?), but at least it gives the film a different angle. Neat. 🙂

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