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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The People Under The Stairs
The People Under The Stairs
Universal // R // October 7, 2003
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Mike Long | posted October 27, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

Due to the worldwide fame of Freddy Krueger and the financial success of the Scream films, many consider Wes Craven to be a very mainstream filmmaker. But, the director has many weird movies on his resume, most being early efforts, such as 1977's The Hills Have Eyes or 1982's Deadly Blessing. And even after the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven clearly wasn't ready to shy away from bizarre films, as evidenced by 1991's The People Under the Stairs.

The People Under the Stairs opens in the ghetto of an unnamed city. In a filthy apartment there, a women lie ill in the bedroom. Her two children, Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) and her young brother, Fool (Brandon Adams), have just learned that the family is to be evicted, as they are behind on the rent. Ruby's "friend", Leroy (Ving Rhames) claims that he knows where the landlord lives, and that there's a rumor that the landlord's house is full of gold. It is Leroy's opinion that robbing the landlord's house would be the right thing to do, and he convinces Fool to come with him.

Fool, Leroy, and another accomplice named Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) go to check out the house. Spenser decides that he needs to see the inside of the home in order to get an idea of how to plan the robbery. When he doesn't return from his reconnaissance, Leroy and Fool enter the building, only to find themselves trapped in a house of horrors. The landlords, whose names we never learn, they simply call each other Mommy (Wendy Robie) and Daddy (Everett McGill), live in a virtual fortress, where the windows are all unbreakable and the doors are electronically locked. To make matters worse, they are heavily armed and live with a very large dog. Fool learns that the landlord's daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer) lives like a prisoner in the house. Leroy and Fool realize that they are going to have to fight their way out of the house. But, even if they can get past Mommy and Daddy, they will have to face the terrible beings which live in the basement.

To say that The People Under the Stairs is a weird movie would be quite an understatement. The movie plays like a dark fairy-tale, in which the poor peasants rise up to attack the castle of the monster which enslaves them. However, the viewer knows that they have strayed far from fairy-tale land when Daddy suddenly appears dressed entirely in leather fetish gear. The film is relatively light on gore, but there are a few setpieces which are surprisingly bloody. The titular people under the stairs are quite a gruesome bunch, and their predicament is truly nauseating. Also, the actual and implied scenes of child abuse may be too much for some viewers.

The other thing which makes The People Under the Stairs so odd is its tone. As with Phantasm, the main character here is an adolescent (the story takes place on Fool's 13th birthday), and having a child placed in this world of horror creates an strange vibe in the film. There isn't much humor to be had in The People Under the Stairs, but the few jokes in the film feel as if they are aimed squarely at a 13 year old audience. It's almost as if the Farrelly Brothers did a re-write on Craven's script and added a handful of groan-inducing one-liners. The moments where levity is attempted kill the tenuous tension which the film exhibits.

For the first hour, The People Under the Stairs has some very suspenseful moments, but the last 35 minutes contain some plot twists which are very hard to swallow and the film runs out of gas before the finale. While the story doesn't go the duration, Craven's cast does. Robie and McGill, who had previously played a weird couple on "Twin Peaks", never break character here, which allows their eccentricity to escalate throughout the film. Ving Rhames has only a supporting role, but, as usual, he's good. Young Brandon Adams is asked to carry the film and does an admirable job, although he seems uncomfortable with those unnecessary jokes. The People Under the Stairs shows that Craven is a director who isn't afraid to experiment, and the product has some moments, but can't live up to the bizarre atmosphere which permeates the movie.

Video

The People Under the Stairs come into the light courtesy of Universal Home Video. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer has been enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is relatively sharp and clear, showing only a minor amount of grain at times. The picture shows little evidence of artifacting, although edge-enhancement is quite evident in many scenes. The movie contains many dark scenes, but the action is always visible here, and the colors and fleshtones are well-balanced. Overall, a good transfer.

Audio

The DVD contains a Dolby 2.0 surround audio track. This track provides clear dialogue, with no evidence of hissing or distortion. The stereo effects on the track are very well-defined, and there is bass effects are handled nicely, but the surround effects are basically non-existent. The dynamic range on the track is unwieldy, with the music and sound effects being much louder than the dialogue.

Extras

There are no extra features on this DVD.


Given the success of many recent theatrical horror releases, there's appears to be a renewed interest in the kind of "brutal" horror which inhabited films in the 1970s. The People Under the Stairs may be an uneven film, but it's truly a unique one, and while's it's certainly not scary, it will have an effect on many viewers.
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