I've typically used this space to review films of the past that are widely hailed and recognized. This week, however (at the request once again of Ms. Merlot), I am taking a look at a movie that kind of gets short shrift, in my opinion. While not disliked, it does get unfairly overlooked, and is, in fact, one of the most fun horror pictures of the early 1990s.
When the name of Wes Craven is brought up, people usually think of A Nightmare on Elm Street, or maybe Scream. They might also mention Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, The Serpent and the Rainbow, hell, maybe even Deadly Friend or Shocker. But it's highly unlikely that they will mention The People Under the Stairs, which is easily the director's most underrated horror film.
Coming on the heels of the aforementioned Shocker, in which Craven had tried, unsuccessfully, to launch another slasher franchise, the director was looking to do something a bit different. And he certainly did that with People Under the Stairs--say what you will about it, it's quite unique.
The story of a poor young boy nicknamed "Fool" (played by child star Brandon Quinton Adams, best known for starring alongside Michael Jackson in Moonwalker), who breaks into the home of his wealthy landlord along with his older sister's boyfriend, the movie blends horror, suspense, and a liberal dose of comedy. Fool and Leroy (played by relative newcomer Ving Rhames three years before Pulp Fiction made him a star), are out to steal some valuable coins from the miserly landlord, in order to help Fool's poverty-stricken family and cancer-suffering mother. But they get more than they bargained for when they find themselves trapped in the house, and at the mercy of the owners and their mysterious brood of "people under the stairs".
The cast is rounded out by the likes of Bill Cobbs, a solid character actor who recently popped up as the old custodian in A Night at Museum; as well as fan favorite Kelly Jo Minter, whom had previously appeared in the fifth installment of the series Craven had started, NOES.
It's the quirkiness of the film, more than anything else, that makes it so interesting. It's not especially well-acted or shot. It does benefit from some effectively spooky production design from Spinal Tap and Moonwalker designer Bryan Jones. The makeup work also contributes tremendously to the horror aspect, and is especially shocking in parts due to the often comic nature of the film. For this we can thank Howard Berger, a luminary in the field whose resume includes such films as Day of the Dead, Night of the Creeps, Evil Dead II, Misery, Pulp Fiction, Craven's Scream, The Green Mile, Kill Bill, Sin City, Hostel, Drag Me to Hell, and many, many others.
It's a very bizarre and original premise, and only gets weirder when we learn that the supposed couple who owns the house are actually brother and sister, with the mutated, zombie-like kids under their stairs being children they have abducted to be their own. Add to that the fact that we have a main character in constant peril who is also a child, and this makes for some interesting viewing.
Craven would follow up this 1991 picture with a creatuve return to the series he launched, New Nightmare--and not long after that would enjoy a second career renaissance thanks to the groundbreaking Scream. And so, PUS (as I so fondly abbreviate it) would sort of get shuffled under the carpet, remembered only by the dedicated fanboys (like myself) who enjoyed it the first time around.
So for those who were not around to enjoy it, especially those who have found they particularly enjoy the work of Wes Craven, I wholeheartedly recommend The People Under the Stairs. It may be no Nightmare on Elm Street, but it's a far cry from Vampire in Brooklyn, too.
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