Building on their reputation for introducing overlooked terrors to a new generation, Arrow Films this week unleash director Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991). Though it may not be one of Craven’s very best efforts, it does create a sense of tension seldom felt in horror cinema. There’s a local house which kids are warned never to go near, as the owners are a little odd – to say the least. So it’s with trepidation that Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) is persuaded by his sister’s boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) to accompany him and friend Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) as they break into the abode.
The trio do indeed find something hidden in the house, though it’s perhaps not quite what any of the party were looking for. Craven, arguably responsible for causing more disquiet amongst the inhabitants of suburban America than any other purveyor of horror, certainly has a thing about houses. Several of his movies, including The Last House on the Left (1972) and perennial Halloween favourite A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (rereleased in UK cinemas last week by Park Circus), are based in and around comfortable family homes. However this trait reached its peak with his seldom seen The People Under the Stairs, in which it is the house itself which hides much of the film’s horror, whilst taking on a life of its own.
Said house, with its forbidding exterior and a world of hidden corridors and tunnels beneath the surface, in which its owner’s unfortunate victims live, is frequently the most interesting thing on display. Unfortunately, the characters that little Craven’s creepy chiller are, on the whole, disappointingly two-dimensional. By the end of the film you know very little about the various disparate individuals, and furthermore – with the exception of Fool (imbued with a feisty resilience and juvenile ingenuity by the young Adams) – you ultimately care little for them. It could perhaps be argued, however, that the antagonists’ lack of substance – ambiguously referred to throughout as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ – does add to their overall nightmarish nature.
The People Under the Stairs’ other major drawback is its inclusion of random and surprising gore. Being a Craven film, a degree of explicit nastiness is to be expected. However the majority of the violence here this is done with a fair degree of black humour, to the extent that when ‘Man’ decides to carve up a hapless intruder and feed him to the creatures in his basement, the vividness of the murder is intensified by the very fact that it’s ‘unexpected’ – a good term to describe the overall tone of one of the stranger entries in Craven’s macabre oeuvre.
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