The People Under the Stairs

06/21/2019 06:26

Film: The People Under the Stairs

Year: 1991

Director: Wes Craven

Writer: Wes Craven

Starring: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill and Wendy Robie



Now this was a film that I remember watching quite a bit growing up, but, I don’t think I actually ever watched all the way through until college. It was always on the movie channels and I would catch it at different parts. Regardless, this film actually used to freak me out a lot when growing up and it wasn’t until I got a bit older that I actually realized that it written and directed by Wes Craven. The synopsis is two adults and a juvenile break into a house occupied by a couple and their child. There is much darker truth hidden inside.

We start this out while seeing the cards of a tarot reading. This is being done on the 13th birthday for Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams). His real name is Poindexter, but every time he gets his cards read, his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) always draws that card for him. He learns the harsh reality that they are being evicted and his mother is dying. He is offered a way to make some money from Ruby’s boyfriend, Leroy (Ving Rhames).

The job is one that is sketchy though. They are going to rob the landlord who is trying to evict them. They go to the neighborhood where their house is, posing Fool as a Bear Scout. He tries to do some recon, but the mother (Wendy Robie) turns him away. The next move is to have Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) pose as a gas man who needs to check a meter inside.

Leroy gets impatient and thinks that they’re being ripped off by Spenser. Fool goes with him. They see the woman leave and break into the house. They are soon met by a vicious Rottweiler named Prince. They get it locked away from them and they split up. Fool goes into the basement where he finds the body of Spenser, who looks to have died of fright. He also finds some people hidden in a boarded up area that seem to be eating Spenser’s hand.

Before the two of them can get out of the house, the mother shows up with father (Everett McGill). Leroy is killed and Fool needs to find a way out. This involves him meeting Alice (A.J. Langer), the couple’s daughter, as well as their son Roach (Sean Whalen). He is living in the walls and no longer has a tongue.

There are much darker aspects to this family’s relationship and what they are doing to the people of the nearby slum is only the tip of the iceberg. Fool needs to find a way out before it is too late. The problem is that he is put Alice in a horrible spot as well as making Roach’s existence even harder than it already is.

As I alluded to, I hadn’t seen this all the way through since college. Since that long gap I’ve seen a handful of time now including for a podcast and another time in the theater. Watching it with a more critical eye, this is actually really good. I’m not saying it doesn’t come with its flaws, but I never caught on to the social commentary that it has until these last few viewings. This couple is quite creepy and I definitely got The Fall of the House of Usher vibe, which I wouldn’t be surprised is what Craven was using for inspiration. I don’t know if it has been inbreeding from the beginning or not, but it kind of feels that way as the line goes on and on. There is a line from Grandpa Booker (Bill Cobbs), filling in their back-story, that the longer down the line they get, the crazier they get and the worse they got at hording their money. This would fit the bill.

This brings me to the next point; there is a social commentary here about the rich. They don’t always play by the rules and do things illegally to make more money as well as to not spend it. They’re slumlords. They are raising rent while not doing the necessary upkeep to force the impoverished families out. This is also gentrification and that is what they want. I’m not sure legally they could force people to pay 3x the rent for being a day late and also can’t force them out that quickly, but I get where this is going. With the current political climate, this is definitely relevant.

The crazy siblings are also very religious. They have the See, Speak and Hear No Evil items all over their house. Alice explains this to Fool and it also gives reason to the people that are being kept under the stairs. I don’t necessarily know if a family could get away with what they are, but there’s a line I picked up this time that I hadn’t before. There isn’t any record of these children there. I know of a guy in Cleveland who was holding kidnapped women as well things like Elizabeth Smart. Using that info, this could possibly happen and even more so in the 90’s.

Last aspect of the story I wanted to bring up is the referencing of Robin Hood. Now Leroy, Spenser and Fool are pretty shady. Not so much Fool, because he is young and has high expectations for his life. This film does kind of have that feel of robbing the rich to give to the poor. It does have a ghetto feel to it in that Leroy doesn’t exactly trust Spenser. It is actually heartbreaking that Fool wants to become a doctor, but forced into committing crime due to his plight.

This brings me to the pacing of the movie, which I think is great. For a film that runs 102 minutes, it doesn’t feel that way. We get the problem introduced to us quickly and then we see that the next day Fool is on the recon mission with the two guys. Going from there, it falls apart and they find themselves trapped inside pretty quickly. I will admit, even though I know how this film plays out, it got my anxiety going. Fool needing to find a way from the crazy couple really made we worried. I think that’s a sign of a good film if I know what’s coming and it still bothers me. I will say that I’m not the biggest fan of the ending and came off a little bit cheesy as well as unbelievable. There is some comedy that is built into the film that hurts some of the tension by taking me out of things. The social commentary and the gravity of the realism bring it back for me though.

As for the acting of the film, I think it’s pretty solid. Adams is fine as a child actor. It is pretty impressive the number of films he did around this time. He isn’t great, but I believe him. I could have done without the cheesy lines. That is something I come to expect from a Craven film though. McGill and Robie are pretty scary. The depths of their insanity are unreal, but it is actually believable in a scary way. I liked Langer and her character. She’s never been outside and that fear of the unknown was good. It makes sense for what her character does late in the second act. Rhames, Whalen, Cobbs and Minter are all solid in their roles. I would also say the rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed.

To the effects of the film, they seemed to be done all practically and I think that is really a strong part to the film. We don’t really get a lot of effects to be honest though. The blood we get is good. I actually have to say the look of Roach and what was done to his tongue was great. The people we see living under the stairs is also quite creepy. When I saw KNB during the credits and Greg Nicotero’s name, it really made sense. The film is also shot very well. I also really like the modern take on the ‘old, dark house’ movie with all of these secret passages and hidden rooms.

What is interesting is that until this most recent viewing, I never really noticed the soundtrack. They use some violin based music that got my anxiety going. I think what they do here is done very well in fitting for what the scenes need. Going along with that, I wanted to go over the sound design as well. One aspect is yelling of characters. Roach when he is free in the walls and he like chanting is scary before you meet him. The same can be said for when the father is on the rampage or the scenes in the basement of those being kept there. It all helps to build on the feel of this setting.

Now with that said though, this film actually holds up really well for me. I think the concept of what is going on this house and the depravity of the couple there is great. The underlying social commentary is something that I’m always a fan of as well. The pacing really helps to build that story and at times get my anxiety going with the cat and mouse, but I will admit I’m not a fan of the ending of the film. Acting though is really good across the board and the effects used were as well. The soundtrack as well as the design with screams and yelling really can be unnerving. Overall I’d say this is a really good film and would recommend giving it a viewing if you are a horror fan or not. I think its message, especially now is relevant.


My Rating: 9 out of 10