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The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Cast: Tony Cecere, Tony Cecere, Kelsee Devoreaux, more...
Director: Wes Craven, Wes Craven
    see all cast/crew...
Studio: Universal
Genre: Comedies, Horror
Running Time: 103 min.
Languages: English, Spanish, French
Subtitles: Spanish, French
    see additional details...

Wes Craven wrote and directed this surrealistic horror-comedy, which was inspired by a true story of parents keeping their children locked in a basement for years. Fool (Brandon Adams), an African-American teen, breaks into the home of the wealthy landlords who evicted his family from a ghetto tenement. A fortune in gold coins is rumored to exist inside, but Fool discovers that the mansion is a chamber of horrors presided over by a pair of incestuous, serial killer siblings (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). The twisted couple has also tried to raise a succession of kidnapped boys. Each botched effort is handled the same way -- the victim's eyes, ears and tongues are removed, and he's sent to live in the sealed-off basement, where a colony of similarly deformed "brothers" resides. Fool is able to avoid the evil lovers as he moves through the house's maze of hidden passageways. He discovers that the occupants have a daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), who has survived their abuse, so he rescues her and they attempt to free the "people under the stairs." Adams, who made his feature debut with in film, was familiar to viewers as the star of rock singer Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1988). ~ Karl Williams, All Movie Guide

GreenCine Member Reviews

Memorably vicious, stylish and moral. by chaosmind April 1, 2006 - 9:39 PM PST
0 out of 1 members found this review helpful
This is a brutal, slice-of-sadistic-realism film that is intelligently-plotted, excitingly-paced and ruthlessly violent. Wes Craven's best movie concerns a kid, Fool (Brandon Adams), accompanying his criminally-pragmatic stepdad, Leroy (Ving Rhames, in a brilliant performance), on an exceptionally ill-fated educational foray into the exciting world of breaking and entering. It's not "The Godfather," but a smart and violent horror comedy.

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre alludes to certain class issues around rural/urban distinctions, as the original Dawn of the Dead did with consumer culture and "trips to the mall." This film's first act takes on the ghetto and the institutional racism of landlords. With a horror twist. (Would make a nice double-bill with either "The Faculty" or "Tales From the Hood." Somehow I also think this is the only film of Craven's that fans of David Cronenberg might appreciate.) If you are in the mood for a violent and fast-paced yet thoughtful and socially-conscious action/horror film (think Stephen Sommer's "Deep Rising" meets Grandmaster Flash's "the Message," or wait, "To Kill a Mockingbird" meets Romero's "Night of the Living Dead".... nah, think Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" meets "The Goonies"), give this one a whirl. Although grim, not a total splatterfest, no gratuitous nudity, "People Under the Stairs" is an effective sociopolitical commentary in the guise of a horror film with a lot of clever dialogue. This film may leave some gorehounds wanting despite some truly grotesque moments of exposition (how do the people under the stairs feed?) along the way.

The extraordinarily-creepy story hinges upon the effectiveness of the chlid actors, whom I normally hate. If we didn't care about the kids, the whole film would fall apart. The number one reason this movie rules is the intelligence exhibited by the kids who lead the film--even more than Larry Clark's "Kids",this film may contain the single most accurate depiction of the actual intelligence of children/young adults ever captured in a movie. There's something approaching a romance between the young boy and the girl (AJ Langer), who both give uncanny performances. Fool is inspired by Leroy's strength which he must emulate in order to survive, and Alice in turn inspired by Fool's strength to abdicate the subservience to her imprisoning monsters which has kept her alive so far and attempt escape.

That brings us to the end of the first act... spoilers follow.

Fool is black, Alice is white, the parents are cracker-jack racists with an S-and-M fetish. Is this the first interracial "puppy love" story in Hollywood history? It's certainly the most vicious. The fact that the two kids get out alive at the end certainly helps balance out much of the darkness of the film, and the wonderfully natural interracial relationship anchors the heart of the film. The third kid (Alice's brother?), the one living both in the walls and under the stairs, had his tongue cut out for speaking out (love that Code of Hanurabi-style justice). Not clear if he survived or not at the end, which is somewhat unfortunate. Very unfortunate that Ving Rhames doesn't survive the first half of the film, as his dialogue in the beginning constitutes the bulk of the movie's intelligence.

The parents are in fact siblings, one of those befouled family relations that obsesses the mind of a sociologist like Wes Craven (cf. The Hills Have Eyes). The creepy screenplay's pacing doles out these Freudian-transgressive plot-twists over the first half of the film, producing a kick ultimately as challenging as Hitchcock's Psycho or Miike's Visitor Q.

This is a dark film which can only really appeal to those of nihilistic or natural-selective bent, despite its frequent moments of humor and insight. Good stuff for the hard of heart and strong of intellect. Life isn't always filled with goodness, but we can usually learn from good examples of the bad stuff.

GreenCine Member Rating

(Average 6.24)
50 Votes
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