The People Under the Stairs

Dir: Wes Craven, 1991. Starring: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames. Horror.
The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the Stairs is absolutely bonkers. It's as if David Lynch and Wes Craven took a field trip to the ghetto and came away with an outrageous idea for a thriller/horror movie. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks take on another strange domestic role as a brother and sister who never seemed to grow out of playing house and who like to steal children. The movie shares the same violent color schemes and unsettling (yet somehow humorous) dialogue that you find in practically every Lynch film.

Following the newly 13-year-old Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Quintin Adams), the story opens up with a tarot reading from his older sister Ruby that warns of a year filled with death and ignorance. The two siblings are struggling to make ends meet as their mother is slowly dying of cancer. They're the only tenants remaining in a building that their landlord wishes to tear down in order to make room for condos and tenants who aren't predominately black. Ruby's boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) is a petty criminal who's tired of seeing families thrown to the streets and offers Fool an alternative in making the payments they need to stay there. He's come across a map of the landlord's home and plans to rob it. Rumor has spread across generations that the steep rent and poor conditions of the ghetto has led to a ton of profits for the landlord. This money, thought to be a mass hoard of gold coins, is said to be inside and Leroy wants to get his hands on it.

Fool joins in on the plan. Posing as a boy scout, he tries to approach the house and sell cookies. When the woman of the house isn't interested, he tries other methods of entering in order to case the house. He's denied access, but before leaving, he notices that all of the windows are not only barred, but padlocked on the outside. The two have an accomplice who tries to enter as the gas man and succeeds. When they notice that the woman leaves and they haven't seen their friend exit, they break in thinking that they've been double-crossed. Inside they find a vicious Rottweiler and locked door upon locked door before ever entering the main house. The woman returns with her husband and notices that there's been a break in. While calling each other “Mommy” (Wendy Robie) and “Daddy” (Everett McGill), they send the dog into the house to sniff them out while Daddy grabs a shot gun and starts firing. Before long, Fool discovers that his accomplices are dead and that something wicked lurks underneath the stairs of the family's cellar. He also finds out that the two have a daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), who's held captive indoors. With her help and information about the house and its various corridors and traps, Fool tries desperately to escape. But once someone enters this domain, they don't leave; so was the story for the stolen children that Mommy and Daddy keep in the basement and have turned into cannibals.

What I enjoyed the most was the outrageous progress of this movie. When the family dynamic is morphed into something that is unheard of and over the top, I think it makes it easier to not take the violence so seriously. It doesn't exactly make it funny, but it becomes a sort of campfire tale or grade-school-spooky story like Candyman or Bloody Mary. The success of the campiness is the dialogue, costumes, and series of events—all which were probably intended to scare the pants of its audience when released, but fail to do so now. It's really hard to be terrified when you see Ving Rhames in a dashiki, or McGill and Robie's characters screaming “burn in hell” every five minutes. The obnoxious 13-year-old that we have to root for doesn't really help the cause of being a good horror movie because it's not even slightly realistic. Nor are the man-children that have been trapped downstairs, only to grow up cannibals and disfigured. These characters are portrayed more like powerful zombies and look like the guys from Gwar without the spikes and platform demon-shoes. Nothing in the movie makes sense, and the ending pretty much destroys what socially positive messages it was trying to impose with the film's protagonist. Again, it's as if they didn't mean to have it come off this way. And still, perhaps based on the performances of McGill and Robie alone, this was as much fun as any other slasher or psychological thriller. I'm not even sure who I'd recommend it to, but I feel like it will make its way into the right hands.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 18, 2011 12:34pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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