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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The People Under the Stairs  (1991)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3 Stars
(Release Date: August 11, 2015) – The financial ailments of a lower-class Los Angeles neighborhood collide with the mischievously darker overtones of Grimms' fairy tales in writer-director Wes Craven's creepy 1991 horror-thriller "The People Under the Stairs." With his mother dying of cancer and his family about to be evicted from their ghetto apartment, 13-year-old Poindexter 'Fool' Williams (Brandon Adams) is persuaded to help his sister's boyfriend, Leroy (Ving Rhames), and Leroy's associate Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) break into the home of their landlords, The Robesons, in search of a rumored prized coin collection. The house, rigged with booby traps and some very dark secrets in the basement, promptly locks them inside just in time for the return of Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie), a suggestively incestuous brother and sister playing house with their abused teenage "daughter" Alice (A.J. Langer). With Fool suddenly alone and vulnerable, Alice decides to help by guiding him to an exit through the corridors hidden within the walls. "I don't want in, I want out," Fool tells her. "Sometimes," Alice replies, "in is out."

"The People Under the Stairs" plays like an especially devious cat-and-mouse game taking place in the confines of a death trap of a house. The mice are Fool, Leroy, Spenser and, ultimately, Alice, who is trepidatious of the world that exists outside but is even more scared of the life she has had to face until now. The cats are the insane Man and Woman, played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (who were in the midst of co-starring on "Twin Peaks" at the time of filming) in gloriously unhinged performances. McGill and Robie are like R-rated Disney villains, cranking their characters up to 11 while never losing the sense of wicked fun found in animated bad guys. As Fool and Alice, who develop a nice friendship amidst death-defying turmoil, Brandon Adams and A.J. Langer make for likable, determined protagonists. Consistently tense though it is, the picture is not without a welcome social consciousness to tag along with Wes Craven's bag of genre tricks. As a horror film and an allegory that is just as timely in the 21st century as it was in the early 1990s, "The People Under the Stairs" actually has something to say beyond its goal to frighten.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"People Under the Stairs" climbs onto Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a 1080p transfer that looks to be very close, if not identical, to the imperfect master used for the barebones 2014 Universal disc and 2013's Region-B Arrow Video version. The image pretty consistently is dotted with minor age-related specks and artifacts with the occasional hair briefly popping up. Black levels are strong, and outdoor daytime scenes exhibit the most noticeable added details in facial features, clothing and surroundings. The picture has a pleasant sheen of unobtrusive, seemingly accurate grain that adds to the picture's gritty subject matter. All in all, the picture could definitely be improved had money been afforded in a proper clean-up, but what we have is still an improvement from all previous standard-def home-video versions. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is satisfying if not overwhelming. Much of the track is front-heavy, with music and ambient sounds drifting into the back speakers, even startling at key suspenseful moments. The sound mix is perhaps a little on the thin side, lacking the robustness of the best audio masters, but when the film's action escalates it becomes quite effective.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with writer-director Wes Craven, moderated by Michael Felsher
  • Audio Commentary with actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Birch
  • "House Mother: An Interview with Wendy Robie" Featurette (19:26, HD)
  • "What Lies Beneath: The Effects of The People Under the Stairs" Featurette (15:03, HD)
  • "House of Horrors: An Interview with director of photography Sandi Sisse" Featurette (16:09, HD)
  • "Settling the Score: An Interview with composer Don Peake" Featurette (10:14, HD)
  • Behind-the-Scenes Footage (6:39, HD)
  • Vintage Making-Of Featurette (3:43, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:18, HD)
  • TV Spots (1:22, HD)
  • Original Storyboards (6:55, HD)
  • Still Gallery (4:17, HD)
Bottom Line
"The People Under the Stairs" is one of Wes Craven's most underappreciated directorial efforts, and like many of his pictures there is a socially adept undercurrent to go along with the onscreen horrors. Not quite like any other genre fare that was being released in the early-'90s era, the film's fantastical, entertainingly macabre feel and fairy tale inspirations add to its unique aura. Scream Factory's Collector's Edition Blu-ray release does the film proud, offering up a respectable A/V presentation and a wealth of quality bonus content not previously available on the Arrow Video Blu-ray. Highly recommended.

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© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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