THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror/Violence

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Directed by: Wes Craven

Written by: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames & Sean Whalen

In a filmography populated by supernatural killers, cannibal mutants, Voodoo, and shocksploitation, I’m pretty sure that THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is Wes Craven’s strangest film…and that’s saying quite a lot. This urban horror story has lots of creativity on display and tone that seems deeply contrasted to the rest of Craven’s work. The story constantly straddles the line between goofy exaggerated comedy or demented brilliance. Sometimes, it leans a little too heavily on the comedic side of things. For the most part though, this is a grisly, fun horror flick.

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Fool is a young boy living in the Los Angeles ghetto. His situation is not ideal, especially when strange landlords give an eviction notice with 24 hours to comply. Desperate to keep his family under a roof, Fool joins up with Leroy, his sister’s criminal boyfriend, in order to break into the landlords’ house to steal a rare coin collection. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, because the Robesons are not quite your typical landlord couple. By that I mean that they’re an incestuous brother and sister who have a collection of “people” chained in their basement and a house decorated with deadly booby traps. Fool quickly finds himself stuck in the Robesons’ home and trying to escape from the nightmare that he’s found himself in.

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Wes Craven is a mixed bag director for me. On one hand, he’s directed great films that have stood as classics in the horror genre. He penned one of the best slashers of all time (involving a certain burnt, razor-glove-wearing psycho). However, a number of his scripts have great ideas, but no one to help reign them in. PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS has one of these scripts. This film is almost like a gorier version of THE GOONIES crossed with something the vein of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or SPIDER BABY. Simply put, the material is absolutely bonkers. While that works for the most part, there are also scenes that feel like they go on for a tad too long. The climax of the film especially feels like there were great ideas that have ultimately wound up becoming too ridiculous.

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Fool comes off as a pretty bland protagonist and doesn’t appear nearly as terrified as anyone else would be in this crazy scenario. He also delivers cheesy dialogue that made me roll my eyes a few times. This was especially true during the finale. Leroy (played by Ving Rhames) has a strong presence as a hardened gangster who isn’t too bright. However, these protagonists are more than made up for in the Robesons. This insane couple are two of the most demented horror villains to ever grace the screen. I loved every scene featuring Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as the psycho siblings. They chew the scenery like it’s going out of style. Robie is entertaining as a 1950’s-style loon with a painted face. McGill is a blast to watch as a shotgun-toting maniac (wearing full BDSM gear) who constantly screams profanity-laden insults at the top of his lungs while shooting holes in his own house.

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Every moment involving the Robesons is a neat combination of depravity and hilarity. An early scene involving the “Daddy” picking buckshot out of his dinner perfectly introduces these deranged mental siblings. The dark humor works in the scenes involving the couple, but doesn’t work at all during scenes involving their flesh-eating Rottweiler. These are mainly made up of Fool’s confrontations with the dog. Know that I’m not exaggerating when he actually distracts the killer animal by yelling “Your momma slept with a cat!” and we get a dramatic shot of the dog looking up from his victim like “What did you just say?” I was rolling my eyes, but as much as when Fool punched the dog in the nose and we get a “bop” sound effect to capitalize on that.

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THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STARS mainly entertains due to its villains who steal every bit of screen time they’re given. The Robesons are two of Wes Craven’s most disturbing characters and the wild creativity on display also boosts the film. On the bad side of things, the protagonists are sort of bland other than being hapless kids. The tonal shifts between humor and full-blown horror also don’t work as well as they should. However, there’s a lot of insanity and fun to be had in watching Wes Craven’s weirdest creation.

Grade: B

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