Despite the brutality of his work, Wes Craven’s films are often slyly intelligent and philosophical; he has frequently discussed the importance of horror cinema in helping audiences address primordial fears and anxieties. And much like George Romero and David Cronenberg, he is a genre director who approaches horror from an intellectual perspective and frequently laces his films with subtext. While it is often overlooked, The People Under the Stairs is an effective horror flick with themes that remain relevant and a dark sense of unease that is still incredibly palpable, unravelling as a compendium of recurring themes and motifs that run throughout much of Craven’s work; race, class, familial strife, generational conflict and the idea of man-made monsters all swirl together in an unhinged and feverishly claustrophobic tale.
Apparently Craven was inspired to write The People Under the Stairs when he read a newspaper story about a Californian couple who imprisoned their children in the basement for many years. The film tells of Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams), a 13-year-old boy who lives with his impoverished family in a grimy LA ghetto. To say that things are tough for Fool is an understatement. His mother needs an operation and the family is being evicted for falling behind on their rent. He is persuaded by ne’er-do-well badass Leroy (Ving Rhames) to help him rob the landlord’s house, where a treasure of gold coins is rumoured to be stashed. Once the pair gain entry to the house however, things take a turn for the horrifying. They discover the landlord and his wife are psychotic lunatics who keep a menagerie of mutilated youngsters captive in the basement. Turns out they’ve been abducting children for years in an attempt to form the perfect family, and when their unwilling adoptees see too much, hear too much, or talk too much, eyes, ears and tongues are swiftly removed. The house is heavily fortified ensuring no one can get in — or out. While navigating his way around the stifling interior of this house of horrors, Fool encounters abductee Alice (A. J. Langer), a young girl who tries to help him escape.
With its myriad allusions to “Hansel and Gretel”, the film unfurls as a nightmarish urban fairytale complete with deformed innocents imprisoned by wicked parental figures. The plot is structured around claustrophobic chase sequences in which Fool and Alice are driven deeper into the house by their pursuers, encountering all manner of grotesque situations and twisted abominations as they go. The house itself becomes a character, with its long, dark hallways, secret rooms, labyrinthine passageways behind the walls and a sprawling dungeon-like basement beneath the stairs. And, as the nameless couple, Everett McGill and Wendy Robie — who incidentally played another oddball couple in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks — are positively demented, delivering frenziedly perverted performances.
At times the tension is hampered by slapstick humour and the crowd-pleasing ‘happy-ever-after’ ending dilutes what is otherwise a tightly-coiled and haunting tale. But while the film doesn’t boast the same surrealist qualities as say, A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Serpent and the Rainbow, it isn’t short of tension or off-kilter moments, including Rube-Goldberg-esque booby traps which lurk around every corner threatening to maim and mutilate.
This new release, courtesy of Arrow Video, features an audio commentary with star Brandon Quintin Adams and film critic Calum Waddell, interviews with stars A. J. Langer and Sean Whalen, writer/director Wes Craven (who discusses the film’s not-so-subtle subtext on class and race) and Final Destination writer Jeffrey Reddick, who recalls the lasting impact the film has had on him. There are also trailers, reversible sleeve artwork by Stephen R. Bissette, and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, illustrated with original archive stills.