Review: The People Under the Stairs / Cert: 15 / Director: Wes Craven / Screenplay: Wes Craven / Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, Ving Rhames / Release Date: Out Now
While perhaps not one of the better-known or more celebrated films of Craven's undeniably patchy oeuvre, The People Under the Stairs has definitely improved with age. Like many of his films from the '80s onwards, it's a slice of Urban Gothic, shining the spotlight on the horrors that may lurk unseen right under our very noses, next door, or just around the corner from where we live out our own 'normal' lives.
Life isn't looking to rosy for young 'Fool' (Adams) and his family: mum's got cancer and his big sister is turning tricks, and to cap things off they're about to be evicted from their grottier-than-grotty tenement building to make way for some new condos. They may at this juncture perceive their stinking rich landlords to be evil bastards, but they don't know the half of it yet. On a hot tip concerning some hidden gold, Fool and feckless family 'friend' Leroy (a pre-Pulp Fiction Rhames) break into said landlords' fortress-like house, and an insane game of cat and mouse ensues as they discover the full horror of the house's secrets, falling foul of the demented 'Man' and 'Woman' (McGill and Robie, best known respectively as 'Big Ed' and the eye-patch-wearing 'Nadine' of Twin Peaks). But who are the titular under-stair dwellers, lurking in the walls? Well, we won't spoil that one in case you've never seen it. We're good like that.
Mostly played for laughs like many a genre flick of the time, People is an enjoyable ghost train ride, complete with electrified door handles, booby traps (a recurring Craven motif), trapdoors, secret passages, plenty of stray body parts, and one formidable mutt. It comes across like a darker-than-dark, Marxist inversion of the previous year's Home Alone, with the homeowners posited as the ultimate capitalists, their (literal) cannibalism serving as a metaphor for this. Occasionally the humour falls flat, and the odd suspense sequence is bungled, but there are some great performances to enjoy, especially from the two villains and Rhames. The presence of Rhames and the full-body gimp suit that McGill dons to embark on his murderous rampages leads one to wonder if a certain young Quentin caught the movie at a vital point in the writing of his 1994 film.
All things considered, it's infinitely better than the succession of dire Elm Street sequels that had been seen by that time (not to mention Craven's own Shocker), and is certainly a breath of fresh air seen again today, in a genre now dominated by glossy-but-soulless remakes, 'torture porn', identikit slashers and increasingly tedious 'found footage' melodramas. This is simply because it contains three elements lacking from most of these: originality, a modicum of wit, and, above all, heart. And this immaculate transfer from Arrow Films represents the best possible way to (re)discover it short of catching it on the big screen.
Extras: Audio commentary with Brandon Adams / Cast and director retrospectives / Original trailer / Collector's booklet