Is The People Under the Stairs not a great title for a horror film? It evokes the kind of scary thoughts your young mind would create as a child of monsters in the closet or boogeymen under the bed. Can you fathom a creaky wooden staircase in the center of your home, with hideous beings living underneath it, waiting to grab you through the railing each time you climb the steps? And put Wes Craven at the helm of such a movie, and you can imagine one truly terrifying film. Maybe if it had still been the 80s, but this was 1991, and since horror was trying so hard to be different, what we end up with is a black comedy with some gore.
By black comedy, I don’t mean African-American comedy. But it just so happens that Wes seemed to be going for some sort of social commentary here. Mainstream society fears the people living in “ghettos,” but what if the real monsters are the Brady Bunch living in the nice house on Elm Street (wink wink)? Yes, a year before there was Clive Barker’s Candyman, Wes Craven took on the projects…but kind of forgot to bring the horror along.
Either I wasn’t paying attention, or character relations are really unclear in this film. Starts with a little black boy living in an apartment in the projects. I believe his mother is really sick, his sister is taking care of them, and Ving Rhames might be the sister’s boyfriend or just an annoying neighbor. Either way, he’s hanging around dressed like a character from House Party 2. Hey, it was 1991. Anyway, he mentions some treasure of gold coins in the big home of the landlord who is taking them all for a ride. So he, some white dude friend of his, and the little kid decide to pose as blue collar workers to get into the house and find it.
Of course, everything is not as it seems in the big suburban house they are targeting. The man (the reverend werewolf from Silver Bullet) and woman (creepy red-headed lady with stern, man-like facial features) who live there are quite warped. First of all, I don’t think they are husband and wife, but brother and sister (and are referred to in the cast as “Man” and “Woman”). Secondly, they have a young “daughter” who is terrified of them. And finally, they have creepy, zombie-like young men living in their basement—and a boy named Roach living in the walls. Yeah, this is one fricked up film. It actually has some very campy and funny moments. What it’s missing is the grit of earlier Craven films to make it scary as well. It’s much too polished, so the sets come across very sterile.
Naturally, our little gang of ghetto thieves is about to learn that white people are the real criminals—not to mention, completely insane. I don’t even know where to begin. The man and woman have a Rottweiler that spends the entire movie pursuing the little kid through the house. The man regularly dresses up in a metal studded leather gimp outfit (sexy) and shoots holes in the walls of the house in an effort to get Roach, who escaped his grasp and has been living in the walls ever since. There’s some gnarly cannibalism, the man grabbing his crotch with desire for B&D pedophilia with his “daughter” (icky), moments that make you whimper for the poor Rottie pup, and an ENTIRE tenement community coming to save the day. Oh yeah…and let’s not forget the house exploding and causing money to rain down all over.
The only thing really missing is the damn people under the stairs! I guess you could say that technically the dudes in the basement live under the stairs. But really, they are just penned up in a sort of barn stall down there. And only ONE of them breaks through the damn stairs! And they aren’t even really monsters…they are the victims of the real monsters (aka: the man and the woman).
The People Under the Stairs is somewhat entertaining, but it’s not really a horror treasure. It’s so over the top you don’t even take the evil people seriously. Hell, the lead kid never even seems genuinely scared. He’s a pretty brazen hero who makes this feel more like The Goonies Under the Stairs! This one gets my vote for a remake…with a completely different plot.