The People Under The Stairs: Craven Film Can’t Quite Pay Its Rent


The Plot:

To aid in the recovery of his mother’s carnivorous cancer, Poindexter “Fool” Robertson accompanies his sister’s boyfriend in a house robbery potentially worth thousands. Only once inside the house the tables are turned and the predators become the prey. Caught in the clutches of a murderous, satanic pair of siblings, Fool must fight for his life. With every moment, he gets closer to escaping. But I suppose it’s like The King says, only Fools Rush In. Welcome to The People Under The Stairs.

Well I don’t want in, I want out-Fool

The Review:

I remember being a child when I first got my hand on a dusty VHS copy of Craven’s urban tale of pale people, dark places, and vengeful tenants: I was already a Craven fan, I was obsessed with all things Elm Street, and Scream was about to blow out its first birthday candle.  I remember being quite fond of the film and viewing it as a plus in Craven’s cannon. Man, time can change things like a dream involving the bastard son of hundred maniacs. So, let’s all neglect to pay our rent, get cozy in the basement, and try to make it out of the ghetto as I review Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs.

The Direction:

Wes Craven directs The People Under The Stairs with some of the heft he brought to his now classics; but only a slight touch. Craven, one of the most revered horror legends of all time with such Holy-Grail pieces as 1984’s dreamscape masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1979’s family- oriented classic The Hills Have Eyes, and 1996’s meta-driven masterwork Scream, really brings the goods in the first half of the film. If only the dismal second half could have followed suit.

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One shot in particular, which is both disciplined and helps the overall atmosphere of the picture, comes early in the film. The shot, which is the introduction of the film’s villainous keepers of both people and stairs, starts with a close up of an active fireplace. As the take progresses, with dialog being spewed in the process, the camera pulls back slowly. As the camera continues to pull back, the frame reveals Man first, with the family slave/daughter entering the frame to serve him, and ending with a reveal of Woman sitting close by discussing the need to rid tenants from their land in hopes of rebuilding to attract “better” people. This is done in one take and is a shining example of why Craven is a staple in our genre.

While the film starts showing signs of cinematic language in the opening scenes, lasting a good length of the film and engaging the audience like a group of rednecks at a Nascar race, the film ends up more like Dale Earnhart’s car then a manned four wheeled machine entering the finish line first. With the exception of the final confrontation between Mother and her now fed-up daughter, which is quite accomplished, the film becomes generic in comparison. It abandons cinematic language and comes off like the work of an average director trying to make his day. Shots become mostly standard and the film trades its dark, drenching atmosphere for childish hijinks and adolescent tom foolery. It was painful to watch the film go from Craven stamped to something kids straight out of film school might pull off.

The Acting:

The performances in Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs are arguably the best export to come  out of the Home Alone from hell picture.

Without a doubt, the best turn in the feature is Wendy Robie. Simply named Woman, Robie is terrifying as the child-lusting mother who can’t seem to keep her kids behaving to her liking. Seriously, the woman is startlingly creepy in the film and a few times I found myself thinking the actress would be perfect for Norma Bates. Ironically, Craven realized this as well with a well-placed homage that is effective in the current narrative but also gives respect to Hitchcock’s immortal Psycho. Just looking at Woman, those eyes and that smile, it wouldn’t be hard to believe the people are actually staying under the stairs by choice.

Then there is Man, played with griming glee by Everett McGill. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a thrill watching him blast away at the walls of his monstrous manor with the rounds of his trusty shotgun. Ash Williams would be proud. What’s most enjoyable about Man is Everett’s way of making the macabre seem so whimsical. He’s a nasty individual, but the actor is so into the role that we get swept right along with him. Call me crazy. I don’t mind.

Lastly, we have pint-sized protagonist Fool. Played effectively by Brandon Adams, who has only been in a handful of projects and is most known for The Mighty Ducks franchise (1992-1996), Fool really has a great amount of believability to him. While Adams’ acting is still hit or miss in the film, depending on the scene and arguably due to the clunky script, he still has a wholesome quality that provides a great contrast to the pair of selfish land-owning antagonists. Though not perfect, ultimately Adams does a fine job here.

The Script:

Wes Craven’s script for The People Under The Stairs shows the horror legend can misfire with the pen as well as the lens at times. Even legends aren’t infallible. This is more of an unusual occurrence than his failing as a director at times; he’s much more accomplished as a writer. He’s a great filmmaker, but his storytelling strength really falls on his abilities with the written, then subsequently spoken, word.

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Here, Craven starts his urban poor-fair story with the appropriate set up. Fool’s mother doesn’t have much time to live, and the family is running out of money. Or rather, they are completely broke. To remedy this, he assists his sister’s boyfriend in a robbery attempt on their rich landlords. Setting up realistic motivations is key to developing and presenting an organic narrative and there isn’t a subject more relatable then caring for one’s family.

Honestly, the first half of the script is solid. We move fast to the heist, and without ruining much of the fun and luster of the film, the film really picks up narrative momentum when inside the house. Once the house and inhabitants show their true colors, we get break-neck pacing and enough adrenaline for any risk-taking junkie viewer.

The problems lie in the second half of the film. Instead of simple, well-executed story, we get clunky situations and erratic character decisions that are almost in direct conflict with what has been previously presented. Fool goes from a smart kid born in a bad situation to the personification of his given nickname.

The ending also falls extremely flat and involves elements that I found to be both patronizing and pretentious. After viewing the finale, I wouldn’t mind being one of the people stuck under that flight of stairs.

The Verdict:

The People Under The Stairs is a far cry from being one of  the best Wes Craven pictures. What starts out strong, building both its narrative and atmosphere, turns into cinematic baby food in the second half. I recommend the film to Craven heads and people who only watch horror film from the last ten years. For everyone else, there are far better films to enjoy that won’t put your ciniphilic sensibilities on the street. Pay your body landlord, that beautiful brain of yours, the proper rent. Deadites, you have been warned.

The Grade: C