Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen
Length: 102 min
Rating: BBFC: 15
Label: Arrow Films
Release Date: 4 November 2013
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English: 2.0 Stereo PCM
Subtitles: English SDH
- Audio commentary with star Brandon Quentin Adams, moderated by Calum Waddell
- Fear, Freud and Class Warfare: Director Wes Craven Discusses the Timely Terrors of The People Under the Stairs
- Behind Closed Doors: Leading Lady A.J. Langer Remembers The People Under the Stairs
- Silent But Deadly: Co-Star Sean Whalen on The People Under the Stairs
- Underneath the Floorboards: Jeffrey Reddick, creator of The Final Destination series, recalls the lasting impact of The People Under the Stairs
- Original Trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Stephen R. Bissette
- Collectors booklet featuring new writing on the film by Brian J. Robb, author of Screams & Nightmares: The Films of Wes Craven, illustrated with original archive stills
Film writer Calum Waddell calls Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs “one of the great horror movies of the 1990s.” And yet this 1991 comedy/horror/mystery is about as frightening as a Chuck Jones cartoon, and its subtext and social commentary (dealing with the class warfare of that era) are a trifle obvious—perhaps even out of place in what was then being billed as a horror movie.
Fool, a young African-American (Brandon Adams) lives with his mother and sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) in a wretched ghetto tenement. Hard times have befallen the Williams family. Fool’s mother has cancer and can’t afford an operation, and the family is being evicted by a hard-hearted landlord for being three days late on the rent. (The landlord is intent on leveling the property and developing a condominium on the site). LeRoy (Ving Rhames), Ruby’s criminal boyfriend, persuades Fool to help him rob the landlord’s house, where gold coins are said to be hidden.The slumlord (Everett McGill) and his wife (Wendy Robie), known only as Man and Woman, inhabit a labyrinthine funeral home, in which zombie-like salesmen, burglars and others who made the mistake of dropping in are imprisoned. Man and Woman have also been snatching babies, intent on finding and raising the perfect child. However, when these unwilling adoptees fail to measure up to the evil couple’s grandiose expectations, their ears, eyes or tongues are removed and they join the prisoners under the stairs in the dark, fortified basement from which there is no escape.
Mommie Dearest seems to have been an influence on this production. Woman decides to adopt the passive Alice (A.J. Langer), but treats the girl abominably, slapping her around, roughly combing her hair, forcing her to mop up blood, and dumping her into a bathtub filled with scalding hot water (one of the few scenes in the film that is actually terrifying).Making the situation even more perverse is that Man and Woman are not a married couple but a brother-and-sister act. One presumes that their sibling relationship is incestuous and sado-masochistic. The People Under the Stairs is a cast reunion of sorts for McGill and Robie, who had just played man and wife in David Lynch’s influential TV crime drama Twin Peaks in 1990-91. (Whatever happened to Everett McGill, who hasn’t acted since 1999)?
Much of the film consists of pursuits through the hidden corridors of the monstrous house, with Man—decked out in a leather bondage outfit—shooting everything in sight, and often being outsmarted by the resourceful Fool. Secret passageways, collapsing staircases, trapdoors and sliding walls abound. (The production design by Bryan Jones deserves special mention). The police respond to the sound of gunfire, but are thrown off the scent by the aura of respectability given off by the wealthy Man and Woman—cleaned up and on their best behavior. So Fool must join forces with the people under the stairs to bring down these despicable characters.
Overall, the HD restoration and transfer by Universal Pictures seems to have been a success. Certainly the film has never looked better on home video. So much of this film was shot in the murky interior of the deranged couple’s house, a mediocre transfer could have easily created loads of black crush. As it stands, the present transfer boasts a nice amount of detail in shadows, and what black crush there is, seems to be mostly inherent in the cinematography. There is no sign of excessive edge sharpening, or DNR filtering, and the presentation retains its natural film grain. While I can certainly imagine this film looking even better in a future restoration, the present blu-ray is eminently watchable.
The 2.0 Stereo PCM track sounds perfectly satisfactory. All the distant, creepy sounds inside the house come over with fidelity, adding to the atmosphere. Dialog is very clear and is properly leveled with the music and sound effects. No complaints about the audio on this one.
Twenty-two years after its release, The People Under the Stairs has a devoted following and gets a first-class high definition digital transfer treatment from Arrow Films. Extra features are plentiful but for the most part disappointing, consisting mainly of repetitive interviews with the younger performers. Among the extras are a dull audio commentary with star Brandon Adams and moderator Calum Waddell; “The People Under the Stairs Scrapbook” with A.J. Langer (a time-killer); “Silent But Deadly” – Sean Whalen Remembers Roach (a feisty abductee whose tongue is severed); “Behind Closed Doors: A.J. Langer Remembers The People Under the Stairs“; “Fear, Freud and Class Warfare” – Wes Craven discusses The People Under the Stairs; and “Underneath the Floorboards” – Jeffrey Reddick on the Lasting Impact of The People Under the Stairs. (Sadly, Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are not interviewed).
Reddick, the screenwriter best known for creating the Final Destination series and whose presence here may seem rather incongruous, turns out to be the most interesting talking head. Reddick considers The People Under the Stairs as a film that was ahead of its time for being scary while tackling social issues like classism and racism in Los Angeles (13 years before Crash). “(Man and Woman) were trying to build a nuclear family and then they were just throwing all the bad kids under the stairs in the basement,” Reddick observes. “It’s funny you thought that the people under the stairs were going to be these evil things that came out and got you if you came into the house, but they were actually the victims who were being held under the stairs, so it was a flip of what you thought the whole movie was going to be about going into it.”
Indeed, the people under the stairs play a relatively minor role in the film and aren’t especially frightening. Rather than monsters, they resemble aging rock stars who’ve spent too much time “standing in the English rain.” Perhaps this accounts for my ambivalent feelings towards The People Under the Stairs, as I was expecting Craven to deliver a shocker and instead he gave me a pitch-black comedy, grandly acted and produced, but not particularly scary. Still, even though The People Under the Stairs falls short of the blood-and-guts quotient, it’s well worth seeing.