Stop me if you've heard this one before: a 13 year-old boy known as "Fool" (Brandon Adams) needs to pay for his mom's operation, so his friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) easily convinces him to break into their rich landlord's house. Inside, "Fool" and Leroy discover one nightmare after another: the landlord (Everett McGill) and his wife (Wendy Robie)---listed as "Man" and "Woman" in the credits---are total psychopaths who keep their daughter Alice (A. J. Langer) under lock and key. Their house is a dungeon of deadly traps, secret passages, and locked exits. But the real kicker is that Alice isn't an only child: "Man" and "Woman" keep the rest in the basement for disobeying their strict and total authority. Naturally, the would-be robbers are the good guys by comparison, and they're not leaving alone.
With this kind of setup, it's not surprising that most of Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs (1991) comes off as completely tone-deaf, even if the film's wild mood swings feel like they were made with the best intentions. It's an extremely dark comedy with plenty of satirical jabs for good measure, but the nightmarish Home Alone factor of a 13 year-old in peril just doesn't sit right as the center of a socially conscious film that targets the Reagan and Bush Sr. era of trickle-down economics. The final product is a wildly entertaining but completely baffling experience...so unless that's exactly what you're looking for in a movie (and you don't mind plenty of gore), The People Under the Stairs falls short in the long run. There's so much that feels completely off about the film that it's almost impossible to ignore, ensuring that a viewer's suspension of disbelief must be cranked up to "11" to completely enjoy the ride.
So why is The People Under the Stairs still a cult favorite after almost 25 years? For starters, the lead performances by Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, Brandon Adams, and A. J. Langer are certainly strong enough. Our "husband and wife" duo obviously steal the show: they play a mirror-universe version of their roles on Twin Peaks, which had just wrapped during the casting process. As the cartoonishly sadistic "Man" and "Woman", it's obvious that these monsters were simply the end product of an equally horrific upbringing, and the fact that it's left mostly unexplained works in the story's favor. The younger characters carry their own weight as well: Brandon Adams' "Fool" is one of the most resourceful horror film protagonists of all time, while A. J. Langer's "Alice" plays the believable victim of an extremely abusive childhood. Sean Whalen's portrayal of "Roach" (perhaps the closest thing that the basement-dwellers have to a spokesperson) is likable enough, a mixture of mumbled gestures and wide-eyed helpfulness that's almost completely in contrast to his more savage companions stuck in the massive mansion's bowels.
But it's the film's winking, campy vibe that really makes The People Under the Stairs stand out in the director's back catalog, even if that's not always meant as a compliment. This is obviously a flawed film that feels compromised along the way, like an accidental mish-mash of genres instead of a potent, purposeful blend. But considering that most horror-comedy hybrids usually miss the bull's-eye (or the target, in some cases), The People Under the Stairs has enough points in its favor to be considered more of an entertaining jumble than a genuine misfire.
Released on DVD by Universal back in 2003, The People Under the Stairs was ported to Blu-ray by the studio a few years ago as well (and later released in Region B by Arrow, while we're keeping score). The only bad news about all three Blu-rays, including this new Collector's Edition by Scream Factory, is that they use the same DVD-era master, which ensures that the visuals don't pop quite as much as they should. But Scream's disc really ups the ante for bonus features, serving up two feature-length commentaries, a handful of retrospective interviews, and much more. It's a well-rounded package for a movie that actually warrants the extra attention despite its glaring flaws.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of The People Under the Stairs was reportedly sourced from the same aging master as Universal's previous bare-bones Blu-ray (and, for that matter, Arrow's Region B Blu-ray). Shot mostly indoors on the film's expansive set, this is a dimly-lit production that doesn't exactly burst at the seams with vivid colors or striking image detail by design. It's relatively clean and features obvious textures and decent black levels, but this picture won't exactly impress first-time or seasoned viewers at any given moment. Those who haven't upgraded from Universal's 2003 DVD will obviously appreciate the 1080p upgrade, but those expecting visual perfection won't get it. Modest amounts of digital noise reduction, banding, and noise are present along the way, but it's nothing too distracting and almost fits in with the film's grimy, lived-in atmosphere. It's disappointing that we didn't get a new transfer for this release, but not surprising and probably not a deal-breaker either.
DISCLAIMER: This review's compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mix (exclusive to this Blu-ray release, and also available as a more purist-friendly 2.0 option) does an admirable job with the film's limited atmosphere, and thankfully doesn't resort to gimmicks while broadening its effectiveness in a few key areas. Surround activity is definitely limited but really heats up during action sequences, while the score by Don Peake and Graeme Revell gets a few moments to shine without overpowering everything else. Optional English subtitles have been included, but only during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The main interface is presented in Scream's typical style and features smooth, simple navigation and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. Separate options are provided for chapter selection, subtitle/audio setup (including the commentaries), and bonus features. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase with attractive reversible cover designs featuring new and vintage artwork promoting the film, plus a matching slipcover to boot.
Not surprisingly, the bonus features are the main draw and include plenty of old and new items to dig through. The new stuff leads off with two full-length Audio Commentaries
; the first features director Wes Craven, who's joined by lively moderator Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures
. There's a terrific mix of first-hand information and plenty of interesting questions are fielded along the way; topics of interest include the evolution of the project, production design and visual metaphors, selecting the cast, "the American nightmare", working with new or familiar crew members, "1,000 points of light" and trickle-down economics, time and money constraints, staying in character, childhood fears and old homes, explicit vs. implied violence, and much more. Craven is in good spirits and has obviously seen the film recently, which certainly helps this track move along at a good clip from start to finish.
The second audio commentary thoughtfully herds together cast members Brandon "Fool" Adams, AJ "Alice" Langer, Sean "Roach" Whalen ("Roach"), and Yan "Stairmaster" Birch (although his last name is misspelled as "Yan Burg" on the menu screen...whoops!)...but sadly, this one is a real snoozer. Interesting memories and production stories are few and far between, as this track is dominated by long gaps of silence, surface-level comments, basic plot narration, and the occasional chuckle. It's painfully obvious that nobody bothered to watch the movie beforehand---or even during the last several months---so why should we be surprised when the results are less than spectacular? A moderator might have helped wake everyone up; as it stands, this commentary can be safely ignored.
Luckily, things pick up during four new retrospective interviews that play catch up with members of the cast and crew. "House Mother" (19:26) is a chat with actress Wendy Robie ("Woman"), who details the transition from Twin Peaks to her first of many horror films. "What Lies Beneath: The Effects Of The People Under The Stairs" (15:03) sits down with special make-up effects artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman, who detail some of the tricks used to pull off several of the film's more horrifying moments. "House of Horrors" (16:09) features director of photography Sandi Sisse, who speaks about her introduction to Wes Craven and inexperience with horror films before The People Under the Stairs. Finally, "Settling the Score" (10:14) catches up with composer Don Peake, who was brought in by Craven to replace elements of Graeme Revell's score that the director wasn't happy with.
Finally, an assortment of odds and ends gives us a vintage look at the film's production. These include a few scraps of gory Behind-the-Scenes Footage(6:39), a promotional 1991 EPK Featurette (3:44), separate self-playing collections of Storyboards and Promotional Photos, along with the film's Theatrical Trailer (1:18) and a handful of TV Spots (1:22). It's a well-rounded collection of bonus features that, aside from that second commentary, remains entertaining from start to finish. Most are presented in 1080p and look great, but subtitles have not been included.
It's definitely not Wes Craven's best movie, but The People Under the Stairs is so committed to full-on insanity that it's almost impossible not to be drawn towards the light. Certain elements haven't aged well, but the film's satirical jabs still ring true and, though actual scares are few and far between, the awkward mixture of dread and silliness can still work if you're in the right mood. Shout Factory's new Blu-ray represents an upgrade in more than one way: though only the audio gets some extra love in the A/V department, this disc is stacked with exclusive new bonus features that die-hard fans will enjoy. Normally I'd advise first-time viewers to try before they buy, but the film's gonzo attitude and this Blu-ray's fundamental strengths work together to nudge it over the top. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.