The People Under the Stairs Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by Wes Craven
1991, 102 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on August 11th, 2015
Brandon Adams as Fool
Everett McGill as Man
Wendy Robie as Woman
A.J. Langer as Alice
Ving Rhames as Leroy
Jeremy Roberts as Spencer
Sean Whalen as Roach
Kelly Jo Minter as Ruby
Bill Cobbs as Grandpa Booker
Young Poindexter “Fool” Williams is celebrating his thirteenth birthday, but can’t catch a break in life. His family is about to be evicted from their ghetto apartment and his mother has a cancer they can’t afford to remove. Poindexter’s sister Ruby has given him the nickname Fool, based on her Tarot card readings, and encourages him to prove her wrong. Ruby’s boyfriend Leroy is a bad influence who invites Fool to join him and his partner in robbing the greedy landlords of their rumored fortune in gold coins. The boy reluctantly agrees, but instantly regrets the decision upon entering the house. The landlords, identified only as Man and Woman (referring to each other as Daddy and Mommy), live in a fortified compound filled with bizarre secrets and a large guard dog. Fool finds himself trapped inside with little hope of escape until he meets a young girl named Alice and her strange albino friend Roach. The landlords loathe intruders, and quickly put their house in lockdown and search the place from top to bottom for Fool. What follows is an extended game of cat-and-mouse as our hero tries to survive long enough to escape this nightmare and call the police. There are several instances where the authorities prove less than competent at their job and Fool is put in a position where he must become the hero and confront the threat himself.
Writer/ director Wes Craven (Deadly Blessing) has long explored the dynamic between rational behavior and brutal violence. He analyzed traditional family values in his early works The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and in both of these pictures the sanctity of home life is destroyed by callous outsiders that bring terror and death, forcing wholesome individuals to tap into their own inner-rage and fight back. In The People Under the Stairs (1991), Craven reverses the dynamic, making the members of white middle-class society the villains, and the invading outsider the hero. The traditional protagonist roles are revealed to be nameless monsters hiding behind pretense and acquiring wealth only for the sake of having it. The socially-conscious Craven tackles a wide range of issues, including racial and economic imbalance, and the growing culture of disenfranchised youth.
The script contains a thread of black comedy to dilute the more disturbing subject matter ranging from kidnapping and child abuse to murder and cannibalism, but this is some of the darkest material the director had tackled in years. Craven received some flak from critics at the time of its release for placing children in peril, but unfortunately this grim fairy tale was inspired by an actual case. There have been countless tales of people escaping nightmares of being held against their will, sometimes for years, and Craven shines a light on the terrifying reality that these stories frequently occur in suburban neighborhoods without anyone’s knowledge.
The People Under the Stairs starts off with an engaging story that will keep audiences entertained for a solid hour, then brakes for an exposition dump that provides some interesting revelations, but this radically changes the protagonist’s motivation. The remaining forty minutes are a bonkers scream-fest with most of the performances cranked over the top and feel like they were grafted on from a different movie. Craven keeps things moving at a decent clip without flying off the rails, but it is a bit difficult to recapture the magic in the wake of the script’s tonal shift. Another puzzling element manifests as the size of the house continues to expand as Fool’s adventure leads him through spacious passageways within the walls and down into the largest basement this side of the house in Dr. Giggles, despite the exterior being a modest sized suburban structure.
Brandon Adams (The Sandlot) does most of the heavy lifting as Fool, the young protagonist pushed into saving more than just his own life. This is handled reasonably well, except Fool is never really affected by the countless challenges he faces, as if discovering dead bodies and an army of albino grunge rockers in the basement is nothing but another day in the 'hood. Everything is taken in stride and he is either the most mature or emotionally disconnected individual in the film. The real stars of the show are Wendy Robie (Vampire in Brooklyn) and Everett McGill (Silver Bullet) as the evil landlords. Having just appeared together on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, it is nice to see the duo play a polar opposite version of their quirky relationship in this bizarre horror film. Robie rocks a Joan Crawford/ Mommie Dearest façade, while McGill loses all restraint in a terrifying, full-body leather gimp suit. A.J. Langer (Arcade) rounds out the central quartet as Alice, the perfect little girl trapped in a hellish existence. She gives a strong and believable performance as the brainwashed heroine and handles the transition from victim to fighter much better than Adams.
The strongest member of the supporting cast is a pre-stardom Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction), displaying a lot of charisma as Leroy, a bad influence who remains likeable even though he is a career criminal and possibly Ruby’s pimp. Sean Whalen (Twister) makes the most of his minimal screen time as Roach by creating a character that leaves a lasting impression even without a clear line of dialogue. Having not seen this film in many years, I was surprised how small his role is, another credit to his strength as an actor. Kelly Jo Minter (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) does not have a lot to do here, but makes a strong impression as Fool’s protective sister Ruby. Character actor Bill Cobbs (The Hudsucker Proxy) has the thankless job of exposition mouthpiece Grandpa Booker, but manages to deliver the goods with an elegant touch.
As a fun aside, a friendly rivalry between Wes Craven and Sam Raimi began in 1983 when Raimi placed a ripped poster for The Hills Have Eyes in the cabin cellar in The Evil Dead, suggesting that his film was far scarier than Craven’s. The following year, the senior director responded by having the heroes of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) watching a clip of Raimi’s film on late night television, implying the flick was tame enough to play on TV. Not to be outdone, Raimi hung a Freddy glove in the root cellar in the cabin of Evil Dead 2 (1988). In Raimi’s Darkman (1990), the titular hero kills his nemesis by crashing his helicopter into a tunnel and as the fiery wreckage flies past, he maniacally screams “Burn in Hell”, a phrase that turns up repeatedly in The People Under the Stairs.
Video and Audio:
Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio The People Under the Stairs looks terrific and longtime fans can jettison their old DVD copy, as this is quite a step up in picture quality. Colors are strong and black levels are solid, a necessity for the shadowy basement sequences. This is likely the same transfer used for Universal’s bare-bones release last year, but there is nothing really to complain about here, since it is the best this film is likely going to look.
Also on hand is the DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio from the previous Blu-ray release, and it does a fine job, but audiences will be happy to hear the all-new DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that Scream Factory has included for this edition. The expanded soundtrack is a welcome treat that plays across the room during the numerous chase scenes throughout the picture.
Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
There are two audio commentary tracks. The first pairs Wes Craven with Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher for a conversational discussion of the director’s career and how he incorporates his social concerns.
The second commentary offers insights from a few cast members, including Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Birch, but is a surprisingly weak experience riddled with extensive silent gaps as the participants quietly watch the feature.
Wendy Robie sits down for a delightful interview in the featurette House Mother (19 minutes), in which the actress discusses her leap into horror films and how much she has enjoyed this experience.
The gang of KNB Effects reunite for a look back at their work on this picture in What Lies Beneath (15 minutes). Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger share stories of the production as a generous amount of behind-the-scenes footage plays over their comments. It is nice to see the archival material and hear the tales from one of the company’s early gigs.
The behind-the-scenes footage plays uninterrupted in a 7-minute standalone segment.
Cinematographer Sandi Sissel talks about working with Craven, children and animals on her first horror film in the featurette House of Horrors (16 minutes).
In Settling the Score (10 minutes), composer Don Peake discusses his early work on films including The Hills Have Eyes and how he reunited with the director here.
A vintage “Making of” featurette (4 minutes) provides the standard EPK marketing material from 1991.
The original theatrical trailer and a pair of TV spots are also on display for this latest “shocker” from the master of horror.
A collection of storyboards and a photo gallery (52 images) complete the special features on this disc.
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