THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991) was Wes Craven’s second film (following SHOCKER) for the art film outfit Alive Films—the company’s final effort, it turned out, before going belly-up (the film was ultimately distributed by Universal Pictures). The film was inspired, Craven claims, by a dream, just as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET apparently was. Obviously PEOPLE wasn’t nearly as successful financially as NIGHTMARE, although it proved Craven hadn’t lost his originality.
The lead role was played by the young Brandon Adams, who’s best known for appearing in Michael Jackson’s MOONWALKER. Also featured is Ving Rhames, of PULP FICTION, and the TWIN PEAKS veterans Everett McGill and Wendy Robie.
Adams plays Fool, a plucky kid named after the Tarot card of the same name. Fool resides with his penniless family in a big city tenement owned by “Mom” (McGill) and “Dad” (Robie), a shady couple who live in a scary house where they keep a young girl named Alice prisoner. Fool decides to break into the house together with his older buddy Leroy, as the place is said to contain a wealth of gold coins.
The house has outer windows that slide back and forth on their own volition. Once inside Fool and Leroy find a veritable maze of doors that open and close by themselves, collapsing stairs, electrified banisters and roving lights. The lights are wielded by a gaggle of abused kids shut up in the basement.
Upstairs Leroy is caught by Dad and shot. Fool escapes into a hidden passageway and meets up with Alice, who explains the whys and where of this scary house: the demented couple running the place are actually siblings driven mad by greed, and now lording over Alice and a bunch of imprisoned children.
Fool manages to escape with several of the rare coins he was searching for. He uses them to pay his family’s rent before heading back to the accursed house with the idea of freeing Alice and the other children—but this time M & D are ready for him…
This is a “not quite” movie. Does it succeed as a horror movie? Not quite. As a modern fairy tale? Not quite. A surreal urban drama? Not quite.
Many of TPUTS’S problems are due to its uniqueness. No template exists for it, yet Wes Craven insists on playing it as a standard issue horror movie. He’d have been more successful had he followed the narrative’s inscrutable dream-logic (David Lynch-like) to wherever it might have lead rather than fashioning a hokey horror fest from it (the Lynch comparison is made implicit by the presence of two TWIN PEAKS cast members in the lead roles).
This is to say that the film’s first half is compellingly weird, but it degenerates into a routine succession of captures and escapes. Yes, the constantly shifting architecture and hidden passages are fun, but not as imaginatively designed as you might hope; after a while the scenery all starts to look the same.
The demented brother-sister villains have been interpreted by some as stand-ins for Ronald and Nancy Reagan, but Craven has steadfastly denied any political orientation—and anyway, the film doesn’t really work as a political metaphor. But does it work as anything else? Not quite.
THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS
Alive Films/Universal Pictures
Director: Wes Craven
Producers: Stuart M. Besser, Marianne Maddalena
Screenplay: Wes Craven
Cinematography: Sandi Sissel
Editing: James Coblentz
Cast: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, Jeremy Roberts, Conni Marie Brazelton