The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Review by Ken Kastenhuber
In Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs (1991) we find ourselves in the L.A. ghetto with a young boy named "Fool" (Brandon Quintin Adams, The Sandlot) who lives with his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter, The Lost Boys) and their cancer stricken mother. Times are difficult and Fool and the family are on the cusp of being evicted by their landlords, the Robesons, a very strange couple known as Mommy (Wendy Robie, The Dentist 2) and Daddy (Everett McGill, Silver Bullet). From the outside they appear a pretty straight couple but they're harboring a few shocking secrets, they have a daughter named Alice (A.J. Langer, Escape from L.A.) who is never allowed to leave the house, the neighborhood is full of gossip about what goes inside the home but it's way worse than anyone could have imagined.
A friend of the Fool's sister named Leroy (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction) convinces Fool to aide him and his associate Spenser (Jeremy Roberts, The Thirteenth Floor) in robbing the Robeson's home, Fool needs the money to pay for an operation that could save his mother's life. Spenser dressed as a utility worker gains access to the home, but Mommy is suspicious of him right from the start and both Fool and Leroy worry when Spenser does not reemerge from the home in a timely manner. Soon after Mommy leaves and the two force their way into the home to discover Spenser's corpse in the basement while pale-skinned cannibals imprisoned within the walls gnaw on him. Soon after the Robeson return home and unleash their vicious dog Prince on the two, in the aftermath Leroy is shotgunned to death leaving Fool trapped in the house alone with no way out.
Fool manages to evade capture with the aid of the couple's sympathetic daughter Alice and a hyper-kinetic boy named Roach whose tongue has been removed, unable to speak he can only communicate in moans. Roach lives within the labyrinth of crawlspaces in the walls of the home and is a source of frustration for the twisted duo that has been unable to capture and kill him for years.
This is a weird one with lots of commentary on corrupted sexuality and the distribution of wealth, and it's also laced with some wickedly dark humor. I have given Craven grief for his clunky attempts humor (the keystone cops in Last House on the Left?) but I think he nailed it here, committing to it for the duration of the film, it's not a weird insert that disrupts the flow of the movie, and it feels balanced and suits the tone and theme of the film.
Thehighlights of the film for me are the characters of Mommy and Daddy, you may recognize this nutty duo from David Lynch's Twin Peaks TV series where they played another bizarre couple, but this is way weirder! Robie as the demented matriarch is unhinged in the best Mommy Dearest sort of way, no more wire hangers to the nth degree, when she hisses "Total spring cleaning!" it's chilling stuff and sort of comical, it's a nicely balanced performance.
Everett McGill is just as creepy, appearing at one point decked out head-to-toe in a leather studded gimp outfit toting a shotgun and screaming "Get you!" on a blood lust rampage, it's the stuff of nightmares. Adolescent star Brandon Quintin Adams does a bang-up job delivering his oftentimes comedic lines with zeal; usually kids in an R-rated horror film annoy me, not this time. AJ Langer and Sean Whalen also turn in decent performances, particularly Whalen who makesthe most of a small, quirky role. Re watching this I was surprised just how little screen time he had, next to that frightening gimp suit his performanceas Roach is what sticks in my mind. .
The 1080p widescreen (1.85:1) transfer done by Universal is very strong with a surprising amount of fine detail and vibrant colors, skin tones look natural and black levels are fairly deep. The elements used for the transfer are in great shape with only very minor instances of speckling, another nice presentation from Arrow Video. The only audio option is an uncompressed PCM 2.0 with optional English SDH subtitles. Dialogue is strong and clear, it's never drown out by the effects and Don Peake (The Hills Have Eyes) score, very nice.
Previously only available as a bare-bones DVD edition it was a treat to get a new set of extras from Arrow Video and High Rising Productions. First up is a new audio commentary moderated by Calum Waddell with star Brandon Quentin Adams. The actor was pretty young when he made the film but does a decent job providing anecdotes about his experiences on the film. It's not an essential commentary but a decent listen for fans.
There are also four featurettes with interviews from Director Wes Craven, actors A.J. Langer and Sean Whalen plus an appreciation by Final Destination creator Jeffrey Reddick. In lieu of a commentary is was nice to hear Craven discuss the true-life origins of the story and dreaming the solution to the script, working with young folks and the ideas and themes found in the film.
Starlet AJ Langers goes into quite a few facets of the film starting with the audition process and how she was excited to work with Wes Craven, whom she remembers quite fondly, and admiring how Wendy Robie immersed herself in the role of the deranged mother. Sean Whalen speaks a bit about crawling around Craven's office on his hand and knees during the audition, the prosthetic fingers and tongue-piece he wore, and a fun anecdote about attending a screening of the film with friends who seemed to be familiar with his character's signature moan. Final Destination series creator Jeffrey Reddick also offers up an enthusiastic appreciation for the film.
Not included with the "check disc" sent for review are the reversible artwork and collector's booklet with new writings on the film from Brian J. Robb, author of Screams and Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven - but that's what you'll find with your retail copies. A very nice Blu-ray edition of the film from Arrow Video with some quality extras.
- High Definition digital transfer of the film by Universal Pictures
- Original uncompressed Stereo 2.0 audio
- Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- Audio commentary with star Brandon Quentin Adams, moderated by Calum Waddell
- Fear, Freud and Class Warfare: Director Wes Craven Discusses the Timely Terrors of the People Under the Stairs (24:38)
- Behind Closed Doors: Leading Lady A.J. Langer Remembers The People Under the Stairs (13:38)
- Silent But Deadly: Co-Star Sean Whalen on the People Under the Stairs (14:00) - Underneath the Floorboards: Jeffrey Reddick, creator of The Final Destination series, recalls the lasting impact of The People Under the Stairs
- Original Trailer (1:29) - Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Stephen R. Bissette - Collectors booklet featuring new writing on the film by Brian J. Robb, author of Screams and Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven, illustrated with original archive stills
Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs (1991) offers up some fun commentary on 90's Bush-era class structure and the deterioration of the family unit wrapped up the very strange and demented happenings at a house in the L.A. ghetto. It's not top tier Craven but it’s worth a re-watch, you just might be surprised how much fun it is. The Blu-ray from Arrow Video looks and sounds terrific with a great set of extras.
3 Outta 5
Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: B
Rating: 15 Certificate
Duration: 102 Minutes
Audio: PCM 2.0 Stereo with Optional English SDH Subtitles
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1)
Cast: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, AJ Langer, Ving Rhames, Director: Wes Craven
Tagline: In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid…
The People Under the Stair is available now from Arrow Video.