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The People Under The Stairs (1991,USA)


Director: Wes Craven      Starring: Ving Rhames, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, Brandon Adams

If you look at the horror output of Hollywood pre-Saw there are a handful of names that dominate the genre over the last thirty plus years. When you consider his seventies ouput included the original The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes and he created one of the most memorable horror franchises of all time in the eighties with A Nightmare On Elm Street all before reinvigorating the genre in the nineties with the Scream series I think it’s safe to say that Wes Craven can safely claim his seat at the table with the John Carpenters, George Romeros and Sam Raimis of this world. In fact, alongside John Carpenter, it’s probably fair to say that horror cinema as we know it today owes a huge debt to his prolific output, even the lesser known films that nestle inbetween the massive success stories of his career.

The People Under The Stairs is one such film, a relatively low key, small scale horror/thriller. When a young family face eviction at the hands of hard hearted landlords a friend of the family Leroy (Rhames) concocts a plan to rob said landlords of a rare coin collection. Recruiting a young member of the family known by his Tarot derived nickname Fool (Adams) and an expendable accomplice they break into the sinister home of the callous couple who are trying to decimate the whole neighbourhood for profit only to discover they have bitten off more than they can chew. Far from being mere profit driven business people, the couple in the old house prove to be far more evil than any of them imagined and are harbouring a dark secret in the cellar. When Leroy and Fool discover they have been locked inside the house they are forced to try and find a way out and help the couple’s equally imprisoned daughter Alice (A.J. Langer) escape in the process.

It’s an entertaining and quirky little film. For the vast majority of the running time it’s tongue is planted firmly in its cheek, switiching in tone at pivotal moments to deliver some genuine darkness when the story demands it. A lot of it though is played for grisly laughs and the interplay between the couple in the house, known only as Man and Woman in the credits and played to tremendous, maniacal effect by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, is the driving force behind most of the humour. Reputedly cast in the roles after Craven saw them play husband and wife in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, their perfectly pitched chemistry is worth the admission price alone here. While their antics sometimes verge on the absurd they are both more than capable of reigning in their performances for when the really chilling moments come around. I love the guilty sense of collusion that rises in you when you have been laughing at them one minute and then realise they’re about to commit some horrendous act of sadism the next.

Thematically it has a lot to say on the corrupting influence of money and greed. The Man and Woman seem intent on the pursuit of profit for its own sake, they certainly don’t appear to spend any money on their delapidated house (apart from the installation of their various security measures anyway) and don’t an obvious goal for the cash they have earned through exploiting the local populace other than to throw it on the pile. There is also a point to be made about the power of communities and it isn’t until quite late on in the film that the local community come together against the landlords, a pointed criticism of the decline of community values and a stark warning of the dangers of not taking an interest in what’s going on around us.

If I was to level one complaint at the film it would be that the picture painted of Fool’s “ghetto” lifestyle seems horrendously simplistic and idealistic. It almost comes across as patronising in the way it represents “the ghetto” as being the product of corrupt rich white people (written as it is by a rich white person!), a fact that threatens to overshadow the rest of the film. It’s saving grace is the “fairy tale” feel of the story, it’s Brothers Grimm vibe acting almost as a justification for the oversimplification of this element, the end result being they just about get away with it.

This fact aside, it represents an entertaining entry in Wes Craven’s filmography, a sort of theme park Ghost Train ride which manages to be a lot of fun whilst still keeping a few shocks in it’s back pocket to throw at you when you least expect them.

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