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Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Wes Craven
Cast: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie
Length: 102 min
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: August 11, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Wes Craven
- Audio Commentary with Actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen And Yan Birch
- House Mother: Interview with Actress Wendy Robie
- What Lies Beneath: Interviews with Special Make-up Effects Artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger And Robert Kurtzman
- House Of Horrors: Interview with Director Of Photography Sandi Sissel
- Setting The Score: Interview with Composer Don Peake
- Behind-The-Scenes Footage
- Vintage “Making Of” Featurette
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spots
- Stills Galleries
If you were to compile a list of pantheon-level horror directors, with ease Wes Craven would land high on it. Even Craven’s weaker efforts (and there are a few) are genuinely still lively and filled with a spirit that is rarely seen in mainstream genre output. Craven has been one of the few voices that wasn’t severely dulled by transitioning from the low budget world to Hollywood, and he has continually reinvented himself along the way. How many other directors can be credited for bringing so many iconic figures to the screen? Having a long running history with Craven — previously releasing Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing — Shout Factory’s horror imprint Scream Factory have once again teamed up with Craven to present one of his early 90s efforts, The People Under the Stairs, on Blu-ray. This disc marks the second release of People on Blu-ray in the US (Universal releasing a bare bones disc last year, and follows a well received R2 disc by Arrow in 2013…so let’s see how it stacks up.
By 1991, Wes Craven had made a major mark on the horror world and was inarguably one of the biggest names for the genre. Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and the immense success of A Nightmare on Elm Street (and subsequent sequels) gave him creative power in the industry. Craven could have ridden on the proverbial coattails that Freddy granted him, but Craven, instead, continued his effort to expand his playing field. He followed A Nightmare on Elm Street with a mixed bag of productions, but did deliver interesting and beloved films like Deadly Fiend, Shocker, and The Serpent and the Rainbow (the latter two set to receive Scream Factory Blu-rays later this year/early next year). By the time The People Under the Stairs was to be released, Craven’s brand of sardonic humor blended with dark subject matter and social criticism was firmly planted. The result is perhaps one of Craven’s more ambitious projects (message-wise) but also one that is, admittedly, a bit uneven.
According to the included commentary track, The People Under Stairs saw its inception in a newspaper article that Craven had come across. The story of children kept locked in a basement only to be discovered when the house was reported to be broken into, inspired Craven — and it’s very easy to see how that made it on the screen. It is, however, how Craven adapted this story that makes the film so interesting. The People Under the Stairs opens in the projects, specifically in the rundown apartment of Poindexter Williams (Brandon Adams) aka Fool and his family. Immediately, the film begins to construct its two most lofty themes: the exploitation of the poor (with explicit racial connotations) and the duplicity of appearances. The latter is thematized in the name of our lead, a character nicknamed Fool who, proven by the events in the film, behaves nothing like one. The naming of his character may appear insignificant, but by having Fool take the place of Poindexter (a nickname often given to ‘nerdy’ kids), his character’s nature is being overshadowed by how other choose to identify him. There is a lapse between his true nature and how outsiders identify him. This is only furthered by the rest of the films plot, where Craven continually reveals the evil that resides just below the surface of outward appearance. It’s a subtle stab at not only classist views of the poor but also racist stereotyping.
The film plot follows Poindexter after he agrees to help a local criminal Leroy (played with ease by Ving Rhames) with a robbery. Craven’s script is particularly strong and gives justification for nearly every character (beyond the obvious two). Leroy and Poindexter are victims of their own oppression; essentially force to commit crimes to survive. Poindexter needs to raise funds to avoid eviction and is easily persuaded when Leroy explains that the subject of their burglary just so happen to be the very landlords who have been exploiting his family as well as the numerous others that have been wrongly evicted from their homes. In Craven’s film is the making of a really powerful commentary on class-based exploitation and economic slavery, but, as we will see, these messages are often confounded by the film’s off-kilter and conflicting tones.
It is not long after the robbery is set into motion that things begin to go wrong. The middle aged couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, chosen because of their bizarre onscreen relationship in Twin Peaks) turn out to be far more sinister than believed, housing a very dark secret beneath the floor boards of their immense, Gothic home. The couple, who are credited as Man and Woman (again Craven commenting on the nature of ‘naming’/identity by denying this evil duo of theirs), have a family of rejected children leaving beneath the stairs of their house.
The People Under the Stairs is an iconic film for many reasons. The first time I had seen it was at a young age and I remember it being terrifying. The idea of living your entire life confined to darkness is still a scary thought. However, reviewing the film at this stage in my life, a lot of Craven’s eccentricities are clearer and the film plays out as more of a farce than anything else — something I sense was completely intentional. Where Craven goes wrong, however, is that the film’s mishmashed tones are far too conflicting, leaving the film somewhat uneven and really working against the themes. While Craven’s artistry helps to keep the film from completely succumbing to its excesses, it does leave the it in somewhat middling grounds.
Beyond Craven, the real strength of the film lies in the performances of the cast. It can’t be said that anyone really gives a poor performance here. McGill and Robie are probably the most susceptible to criticism and certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but their overt insanity and excessiveness are necessitated by the manner in which Craven’s film was made. For this, both McGill and Robie are fantastic and are among a few who could have even made these cartoonish characters work. Adams in the lead, as well as A.J. Langer who plays Alice (the only accepted child by the Man and Woman), are both outstanding. Child actors are often Horror cinema’s Achilles Heel, but Adams and Langer have a maturity and skill that outshines many of their co-stars. Its quite depressing that Adams didn’t go on to have a better career outside of his adolescent roles because given the rights chance he could have been quite a star. While it is somewhat limited, Sean Whalen’s Roach (a rogue member of the titular people under the stairs) is really powerful. Whalen manages to give a moving turn despite having to play a mute, rendered silent by the removal of his tongue (even if Roach is admittedly a tad over-expressionistic). Finally, Rhames brings his usual thunder and delivers quite a performance (including a face off with a Gimp-like character three years before Pulp Fiction’s iconic scene).
By all means, it would appear as if the 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is the exact same master used for the Universal release. This isn’t really a problem because this release does look pretty good, as did the Universal copy. The picture has a nice dynamic range, with natural skin tones, strong color, and crisp black levels. By the time of the film’s production, studio pictures had a very clean aesthetic and that can be witnessed on this disc. There is a minimal amount of film grain but what is in existence looks natural. It is doubtful that much (if any) digital tinkering was done to the master. Overall, a good presentation that leaves a little room for improvement.
One of the two major improvements over the Universal release is the audio track, with Scream having a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix to the prior discs sole 2.0 mix. Audio fares better than the video. While there isn’t a world of difference between the 5.1 and 2.0 mix, the 5.1, as expected, does give the overall film’s mix more room to breath and offers a more verbose feeling.
The second major improvement in this release is the included special features. To begin, the newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn is beautiful. There are plenty of fans that are original artwork purists — and that is respectable — but Osbourn’s art is certainly a welcomed rendition on the original design, which is included (as always) on the reverse sleeve. There are two welcomed commentary tracks. The first one is with Wes Craven moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher. Craven does most of the talking but Felsher pushes him in the right directions, leading to a really informative walkthrough of the film. You really get a sense of the thought that went into Craven’s work and it helps to form a stronger appreciation for his work as a craftsman. The second track features cast members Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen, and Yan Birch and, while it is a bit less engaging, offers a nice insight into what it was like for the stars on set (especially the more challenging role for Whalen). In addition to the commentary tracks, Scream Factory has compiled a few great features including a new, lengthy interview with Wendy Robie (always a treat to hear from), interviews with the special effects team (including the iconic Greg Nicotero), DP Sandi Sissel, composer Don Peake, and finally a few older featurettes including some BTS footage, a vintage Making Of, and the theatrical trailer, TV Spots, and a stills gallery. All in all, there are plenty of features that make this release a worthy replacement for those who had previously invested in the Universal release.
The People Under the Stairs is hardly Craven’s best work. Its uneven, goofy, and far-fetched, but it is also very serious-minded and good intentioned. With a solid cast that transform what could be a ridiculous film into solid entry for the genre, Craven’s film manages to traverse between the poles in a relatively successful fashion. Ultimately, there is unmatched potential for the film, which is the biggest shame. Craven spoke of a remake years ago and this could be a nice contender as a way to offer a more serious spin to the still relevant issues. Like Candyman, People has to be at least acknowledged for attempting to wrestle with important issues of race and class, but it does so in a similarly failed manner. With an improved audio presentation and a boatload of added features, Scream’s release is a no brainer upgrade from the bare bones Universal release.