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People Under the Stairs, The - Collector's Edition

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Scream Factory
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Wes Craven
Brandon Adams
Everett McGill
Wendy Robie
A.J. Langer
Sean Whalen
Bottom Line: 
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While it’s certainly not my favorite Wes Craven film, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs has proven to be one of the director’s most popular post-Nightmare on Elm Street offerings thanks to its marriage of horror elements, dark humor, and biting (and occasionally a bit heavy-handed) social commentary.  The resulting film - an eccentric urban fairy tale that’s both Grimm and grim – didn’t exactly set the box-office ablaze, but eventually built up a huge and loyal cult-following, earning it “cult-classic” status among genre fans.

The film centers on Pointdexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams) who, along with his sickly mother, faces eviction from his rundown apartment building owned by The Robesons - a pair of greedy sibling slumlords who spend their days holed up inside a fortress-like manse on the nice side of town. Fool is lured into a vengeance/robbery scheme by family friend, Leroy (Ving Rhames), who, along with his partner, Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) plans to relieve their landlords of a valuable collection of rare coins they keep in their home. Leroy’s plan doesn’t account for the rather bizarre security system the landlords have employed to protect their home, however, and, when the Man and Woman (Twin Peaks vets Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) come home unexpectedly, Fool and Leroy find themselves trapped inside the house. Leroy is soon found and dealt with, leaving Fool to fend for himself, navigating through all manner of tunnels, ducts, and within the walls of the house, itself, where he comes upon Alice (A.J. Langer) and her mute, duct-traversing friend Roach (Sean Whalen) who, along with a basement full of feral teens, are all being held captive by the Man and Woman. What follows is a game of cat and mouse between Fool and the batshit-crazy homeowners, as Fool tries to outsmart and evade them long enough to liberate Alice and her fellow prisoners.

As with most of Craven’s films (at least those he’s scripted), The People Under the Stairs is teeming with socioeconomic commentary and allegory, here offering us a microcosm of the war between the “haves” and the “have-nots”,  with Fool representing the trod-upon masses, and Man and Woman standing in for the social elite who profit on suffering. It’s a sobering message, but I’ve always found Craven’s handling of it to be…well… a bit racially insensitive. Yes, I realize it’s a plot device to get Fool into the house so he can discover the true nature of Man and Woman and further the story, but I can’t help but think Craven could have come up with another way of doing that without having his black characters resort to robbery. It’s just lazy storytelling that, when paired with Fool’s “jive talking” dialogue, muddies Craven’s obviously well-meaning message. To be fair, though, The People Under the Stairs IS one of the very few horror films to feature a black protagonist as its main character, albeit one of the stereotypical variety that only a wealthy middle-aged white person could dream up. And that ending…oh man.

Now, with that bit of “social justice warrior” prattle out of the way, The People Under the Stairs is still worth a viewing. While I don’t consider it a classic, it’s still an entertaining and unique horror/black comedy hybrid, and worth seeing for the unhinged performances of McGill and Robie alone. Their pursuit of Fool lends for some of the most outrageous and side-splitting scenes in the film and plays out like Craven’s answer to Home Alone, except instead of the Wet Bandits slipping on wet paint, we get McGill in bondage wear firing potshots into the sheetrock. Revisiting it now after nearly a decade since I’d last watched it in its entirety, I still find Craven’s social commentary a bit of a laugher, but the film has held up otherwise, and Scream Factory’s new Collector’s Edition presentation is pretty impressive.

Scream Factory presents the film in a 1.85:1 1080p transfer that is very clean and virtually devoid of any evidence of print damage. While fine details aren’t quite as evident here as they are in films of a similar vintage that can be attributed to the dreamy gauzy aesthetic used by Craven to intentionally soften the image. There’s also a an omnipresent sheen of cinematic grain that further obscures detail, but also warms the image considerably for a satisfying theatrical look. The accompanying DTS HD Master Audio mono track is crystal clear, with crisp dialogue and solid sound separation, while the film’s score sounds rich and full.

Bonus features include a wealth of all-new material, including a pair of commentary tracks – the first featuring Wes Craven, and the second reuniting cast members Adams, Langer, Whalen, and Yan Birch (who played the lead “mutant basement kid”). Obviously Craven’s track will prove the favorite among those looking for a more technical breakdown of the film, but the cast track is a fun listen, and I really enjoyed their reminisces of their time on the film.

Also new are a series of interview shorts, including House Mother (with Wendy Robie), What Lies Beneath (an FX oriented piece with Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman), House of Horrors (featuring DP, Sandi Sissel), and Settling the Score (which, appropriately focuses on composer, Don Peake). We’re also given a collection of raw behind-the-scenes footage.

Carryovers from previous releases include a vintage making-of featurette, stills galleries, trailers, and TV commercials for the film.

I have my issues with The People Under the Stairs (and many of Craven’s films in general), but there’s no denying that lot of folks have embraced Craven’s eccentric and darkly humorous film, elevating it to its cult-classic status. Scream Factory’s presentation is, as per usual, stellar, with an attractive audio/visual package and a fantastic collection of bonus materials.



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