Directed by Wes Craven, of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fame, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS harks back to horror movies of the 1970s in its overall claustrophobic meanness.
Fool (Brandon Adams) lives with his mother and sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) in a dangerous, filthy ghetto apartment. As if this state of affairs isn't bad enough, the family is evicted by their cruel landlords, who are known for emptying low-income buildings and replacing them with profitable
middle-class housing. Ruby's boyfriend LeRoy (Ving Rhames) concocts a scheme to steal from the landlords, and persuades Fool to help him. Together they steal into their enormous home, ignoring such ominous signs as the window gates that are padlocked from the outside. Once within, the trio find
themselves trapped in a house of horrors. Landlords Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie) are dangerously mad. Siblings, they live as a couple and have a teenaged daughter named Alice (A.J. Langer), whom they abuse and terrorize. She's not even their natural daughter--she was kidnapped to
fulfill some twisted fantasy of a "normal" family life. She has no brother because the boys they kidnapped all failed to work out; they tried to escape or defied authority. Disfigured and starving, they live in the basement, the "people under the stairs" of the title. Fool escapes from the house,
but returns to rescue Alice. He eventually kills Man and sets the people under the stairs free. They kill Woman. Fool also discovers a large cache of money in the house, which finds its way into the hands of the beleaguered tenants.
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS seems made up in equal parts of Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and Craven's own THE HILLS HAVE EYES, both of which deal with monstrous, perverted families who prey on their more mainstream cousins. It has none of the ironic self-awareness that has
characterized most newer horror films--the NIGHTMARE movies are a perfect example--and doesn't really seem interested in frightening viewers. There are no sudden scares, no jumps involving closets or shadows. It's designed to be unpleasant, to make audiences squirm by way of its nastiness, and
succeeds quite admirably.
Its exploitation of child abuse is creepy; the terrorized Alice is manhandled, thrown into a tub of scalding water and beaten (off-screen) carefully, so the bruises don't show. The boys in the cellar are kept discretely in the shadows most of the time, but its made clear that they've been
mutilated--tongues cut out, ears and who knows what else sliced off--by their wicked step-parents and left to die. Fool attempts to save Alice by reporting her plight to the police as a case of child abuse, but when they come by to check, she's chained up in the basement and Man and Woman are on
their best behavior: the system fails again. Other disturbing elements include butchered corpses (unfortunate echoes of Milwaukee murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, which also plagued the recent BODY PARTS) in the basement and the sight of McGill on the rampage dressed head to toe in leather bondage gear.
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS doesn't stop at making viewers squirm on a personal level; it has a socio-political agenda as well--economic exploitation is equated with mythic monstrosity. Man and Woman--they don't even have real names--are less disturbed individuals than modern-day ogres, waiting
in the old dark house to eat the flesh of little children. But THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS doesn't play like a fairy tale; there's nothing fantastic about it, and the happy ending, in which money seems to equal happiness, rings terribly false. (Violence.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: R
- Review: Directed by Wes Craven, of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET fame, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS harks back to horror movies of the 1970s in its overall claustrophobic meanness. Fool (Brandon Adams) lives with his mother and sister Ruby… (more)