The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - The People Under the Stairs (1991) | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Arrow give Wes Craven's movie the hi-def treatment.

Directed by: Wes Craven
Starring: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames


Coming across like a Michael Moore cheese nightmare, 'The People Under The Stairs' is that rare thing; a politically engaged, black comedy horror film. Wes Craven has been here before; 'The Last House on the Left' and 'The Hills Have Eyes' were both made in the shadow of Vietnam, the first war to play out in the homes of Americans, which lifted the veil of patriotism to show the bloody truth of military engagement. These films depicted the anger that was being enacted on the streets, examining and pulling apart the family unit. Along with 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre', they ushered in a new wave of contemporary horror.
What was previously subtext, in 'The People Under The Stairs', becomes polemic. Like an Oliver Stone movie, it might not be subtle in its ideology, but at least it has a point of view and an aggressive need to unveil the hideous divide between the rich and poor. The scary thing is that over twenty years later, this film has become even more relevant. The divide is getting bigger, the political discourse on news and in print has got coarser and less nuanced; the likes of Fox News and the sixth grade political bluster of caricatures like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck fueling the locked in mania that everyone is out to get you that is so amusingly satirized in the depiction of Mommy (Robie) and Daddy (McGill).
When Fool (Adams) finds out that he and his family will be evicted by their slum landlords for not paying the rent, the anxiety he has for his cancer ridden mother and destitute sibling could be alleviated by Leroy (Rhames), his sisters boyfriend, who has a plan that involves gold coins and a map of the landlord's house. They plan to rob these putative one-percenters. It’s time to stick it to the man.
It’s unusual for ethnicity to play such a major part in a horror film, ignoring such drive in fare as 'Blacula' and 'Dr Black & Mr Hyde', (“don’t give him no sass or he’ll kick your ass” the trailer promises). 'Night of the Living Dead' is the only other film that investigates racial tension in any meaningful way. Craven’s grasp of inner city vernacular may be somewhat weak and he's not above heading dangerously into 'Different Strokes' territory with his depiction of Fool. There is, however, no doubt whose side he is on; these folks may be criminals, but a society that has marginalized and ignored them is responsible. This is crime as a need to stay alive, not out of commercial avarice.
'The People Under The Stairs' suffered somewhat on release. The trailer promised standard horror fare, not the darkly malevolent fairy tale with a comic edge that was actually delivered. The titular people under the stairs aren’t even the monsters, just the twisted cast offs that never reached the high standards that Mommy and Daddy were looking for.
The film's masterstroke is the performances of Robie and McGill, at the time known for their portrayal as husband and wife Big Ed and Nadine Hurley in 'Twin Peaks'. This casts them as an incestuous brother and sister (their names are never actually given in the film, they refer to themselves as Mommy and Daddy). As profiteers of Republican Reaganomics buying up slums and liquor stores, destroying the community and building office blocks, it comes as no surprise that both Mommy and Daddy bear a striking resemblance to Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Once you have the image of The Gipper running wild with a shotgun in a gimp suit this film moves up to a higher register. The performances are large, in keeping with the fairytale atmosphere, and just on the cusp of believability. Mommy says all the right things to those in authority, she idealizes a version of family that no one can meet, which results in punishment of the utmost severity, coming off like a psychopathic Martha Stewart. Daddy’s tastes seem more base; one gets the impression the gimp suit is not just a style choice, he is also a cannibal literally eating the underclass.
It’s not a perfect film by any stretch; the actual people under the stairs have very little to do, only Roach (Sean Whalen), who could best be described as a comic relief cannibal, has any real character of note. Alice (Langer) gives good oppressed as their idealized but oh so abused daughter forced to clean blood off the floor like a gore soaked Cinderella. It also has an appallingly dated hip hop track in Redhead Kingpin & The FBI’s craptastic “Do The Right Thing”, which in one fell swoop destroys the fairy tale ambience so carefully built.
Not the scariest film Craven has ever made then, but certainly his most personal and politically engaged. Whilst most horror films think it’s enough just to gross you out and make you jump, it’s a rare treat to see something that depicts a true horror story being played out for real whilst still allowing you to have fun and enjoy the grizzly goings on at Ronald and Nancy’s house.

Extras

The picture and sound are up to the high standards of all recent Arrow releases. There is an interesting interview with Wes Craven (at one stage a remake of this was mooted, a bizarre idea since it is of relatively new vintage and still stands up today). We also have Interviews with A.J Langer and Sean Whalen. 
Creator of The Final Destination series Jeffrey Reddick pops up for a short chat about the movie with very little in the way of insight. 
No director's commentary, but you do get one with Brandon Adams in discussion with Arrow’s Calum Waddell.
8/10


Jason Abbey