The People Under the Stairs (1991) d. Wes Craven (USA)
Ambition is an admirable trait in a filmmaker. Despite having logged more artistic misses than hits in his four-decade career, Wes Craven could be accused of many things, but playing it safe is not one of them. Even with his films that don't work, he exhibits limitless imagination; the issue seems to be that he has trouble organizing (especially with the efforts he is credited with writing) and lets his ambitious ideas lead him into areas where narrative coherence and tonal consistency become secondary to indulging every idea that pops into his head. A few more drafts of the screenplay for The People Under the Stairs might have yielded a more cohesive final product, but would it have been as interesting?
Fool (Brandon Adams) is a smart kid living in poverty. Like too many poor, African-American families, Fool’s is subject to the whims of a slumlord who is ready to kick them to the curb. Fool’s mother has cancer and his older sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) has children of her own to support. His older brothers are in prison, making Fool the man of the house. But what can a 13-year-old kid do in the face of such challenges?
Unfortunately for Fool, Leroy (Ving Rhames), Ruby’s boyfriend, has a very bad idea. He recruits Fool to help him break into the slumlord’s house to steal a rumored collection of gold coins. What Leroy does not count on is the fact that the slumlords are a pair of psychopaths (Twin Peaks co-stars, Wendy Robie and Everett McGill). Otherwise unnamed, they call each other “Mommy” and “Daddy” and live in a giant, booby-trapped house with at least a dozen captives trapped in the basement.
Fool soon finds himself separated from Leroy and on his own in the house. As he evades capture from the frightening couple, he meets their “daughter” Alice (A.J. Langer) and an escapee from the basement named Roach (Sean Whalen). Alice is confused, frightened, and almost certainly suffering from some psychological damage as the result of being raised by the insane pair. She is largely confined to a bedroom made up with pink wallpaper and other frilly decorations that include a needlepoint reading “Children should be seen and not heard.” Roach roams freely in the spaces between the walls, howling incoherently because he has had his tongue cut out. Both characters do what they can to help Fool to escape, but with the house sealed up tight and “Daddy” roaming the halls and various rooms with a shotgun, the game of cat-and-mouse quickly starts racking up a body count.
I suppose that summary of the plot setup makes sense. Reading back over it, I have to admit, it is not my best piece of writing. But to cut myself some slack, I am trying to describe a movie that largely defies description.
The main problem with The People Under the Stairs is the lack of an overriding tone; instead, Craven veers all over the map. One minute, it’s attempting to be a gritty tale about people living below the poverty line and how that desperation pushes some of them into a life of crime. The next minute, it’s a zany Home Alone-style slapstick comedy. Then, just as the audience has adjusted to that shift in tone, it becomes a modern Grimm’s fairy tale full of gruesome murders, cannibalism, disemboweling, horrifying child abuse, incest, and implied child molestation. Weaved into all of these absurdly broad tones are themes of racism and class inequality that are presented in such a blunt, over-the-top way, Shout! Factory should have included a spoon with every Blu-ray with which the viewer can be fed.
By no measure is this a good film, but it is never boring. It even, in a few inspired moments, actually does entertain while providing some food for thought about the widening economic disparity in America… and then McGill dons leather bondage gear and blasts holes in the walls with a shotgun. There are so many moving parts between the story being told, myriad themes crammed in, and the drastic tonal shifts, it is easy to overlook the many things Craven and Co. do well.
Aside from some early, too-dark basement scenes, cinematographer Sandi Sissel provides a fun, comic book-inspired look with colorful lighting mixed with shadowy compositions, canted angles, and effective overhead shots. Impressively, considering she could have simply relied on a handheld camera, she also provides a stylish, smooth look to the numerous scenes that take place behind the walls.
The elaborate house set is a work of art. Large rooms give way to secret passages. The restored antique look of the first floor is left behind as the stairs that lead into the basement reveal a world that is part dungeon, part stockyards. A beautiful staircase goes up to a second-floor hallway that leads to rooms filled with incredibly detailed decay. The house shows a ton of personality without the overkill of the rest of the movie.
The cast does very good work with the insane script and the sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue they are saddled with. Adams is an appealing presence, only occasionally falling into the child actor trap of mugging for the camera. Rhames is solid, going back and forth between menacing and funny with ease. Langer gives an intense performance that borders on too heartbreaking as she barely holds on to her sanity in the face of some cruel abuse. McGill has a deft comedic touch, going against his normally stoic demeanor to show a gift for physical comedy, and Robie taps into something truly unsettling, playing her cruelty for keeps.
But the screenplay sabotages the film in so many ways that it's hard to consider The People Under the Stairs anything other than a failure. So why do I find myself recommending it (albeit with some serious reservations)? The cast certainly elevates the proceedings, but, perversely, the main reason I find it worth watching is because it feels like Craven is working without any filter between his brain and what winds up on the screen. The result is a narrative mess that resembles a particularly anarchic Looney Tunes cartoon, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Compare the unrestrained lunacy on display here with dull studio misfires like My Soul to Take and Cursed. I’ll always take self-indulgent, possibly insane Craven over the bored studio-hack that he has become over the last fifteen years.
Shout! Factory, as usual, does a stellar job with the Blu-ray presentation. The hi-def image looks great, highlighting Sissel’s alternatingly shadowy and garish color palette, and the extras provide loads of new interview segments with everyone from Sissel to the special effects team of Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger, with “House Mother,” featuring Robie at her most charming, the best of the bunch. Sadly, Rhames and McGill (several cast members mention that the latter has quit acting, which is a shame) are notably absent from the supplementary material.
There are two commentary tracks. The first, with Craven, is disappointing. In other interviews on the disc, people describe Craven as warm, gentle, funny, and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, his talk is the opposite of all those descriptions. He seems reluctant to speak about the actual film and comes across as more comfortable talking about the themes of racism and economic inequality that he forced into the movie. Even these topics lose their steam for him and he resorts at many points to describing what’s happening on screen.
But if Craven's commentary is disappointing, the second, featuring Adams, Langer, Whalen, and Yan Birch (who played one of the titular folks under the stairs), is Chinese water torture. All the participants comment (repeatedly) that they haven’t watched the film in many years and then proceed to simply watch it, only occasionally mumbling a comment of little to no interest for the dullest 100 minutes I think I've ever experienced. The usual trailers, TV spots, and still galleries make up the rest of the extras.
|Who's in charge of the audio commentaries around here???|
The People Under the Stairs is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:
--Review by Matt Wedge
Check out Matt's other reviews at his blog: http://obsessivemovienerd.com