THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS escape onto special edition Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory.
Fool (Brandon Adams, GHOST IN THE MACHIEN) – actually Poindexter, but nicknamed so because of his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter, THE LOST BOYS) interest in the Tarot – is in for a hell of an eye-opening lesson about how the world really works on his thirteenth birthday, a liminal phase when he's "too old to get tit and too young to get ass." With three of his older siblings dead, one in jail, Ruby turning tricks, and having to babysit his toddler sister because his mother (Conni Marie Brazelton, HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE) is bedridden and needs an operation, Fool is the nominal "man of the house." When he overhears that they are getting evicted by midnight for late payment of rent (which results in a late fee triple the regular amount), he agrees to assist Ruby's pimp Leroy's (Ving Rhames, PULP FICTION) and his partner Spenser (Jeremy Roberts, THE MARRYING MAN) in burglarizing the home of their landlords (who they have discovered possess a valuable coin collection). Although the surname shown onscreen is Robeson, the aforementioned landlords are only known to us as hulking Daddy (Everett McGill, SILVER BULLET) and stern Mommy (Wendy Robie, TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME) who live in a former funeral home with their fragile doll-like daughter Alice (A.J. Langer, ESCAPE FROM L.A.) who is subject to severe punishments if she steps out of line for infractions like "feeding that thing in the walls."
When Spenser, posing as a utility worker, enters the house and does not come back out when they see the owners leave, Leroy and Fool break into the house which they discover is a mantrap of a fortress with killer Rottweilers, steel doors, electrified doorknobs, windows that are either barred or nailed shut, and an imprisoned mob of subhuman beings in the basement who have frightened Spenser to death ("You thought he was white before…"). When the owners return, Leroy is gunned-down like a prize buck by Daddy but Fool is able to hide with Alice's help. Fool learns that the things under the stairs are Mommy's and Daddy's attempts to find a perfect boy child who have failed to observe the rules "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" who have had the "bad parts" cut away by Daddy and feed off of the various utility workers and salespeople who have entered the house and seen too much. When Mommy and Daddy realize that there is a third thief alive in the house, Fool will have to venture deeper into the house – where lurks Roach (Sean Whalen, IDLE HANDS) one of the boys who has escaped and is taunting Daddy from the inaccessible spaces between the walls – to find a way out.
Like John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE from the tail end of the eighties, Wes Craven's THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS was part of a two-picture deal with Shep Gordon's Alive Films (the other half being SHOCKER). While it is an undeniably entertaining film, it does flounder a bit as it tries to balance the dark elements representative of his beginnings in genre filmmaking (cannibalism, incest, S&M, child abduction and abuse, and possibly molestation) with the studio slickness and MPAA-friendly brand of horror that toned down much of his and other filmmakers' late eighties and nineties work (to the point where SCREAM's quickly-glimpsed guttings were seen as new extremes in the genre). The comedic toning down of Fool's one-liners (not to mention Leroy's "Secretary of Pussy" line), Roach's manic energy, Daddy's pratfalls and Mommy's exasperation – as well as the certainty that no child protagonist in a nineties genre film is going to be killed – is tempered somewhat by Craven's satirical twists on the notion of the American Family (more so than his attempts at well-intentioned social commentary). Rather than being purely evil for evil's sake, the fucked-up dynamic of the Robeson family is a functional system like that of THE HILLS HAVE EYES' hill people; and they view the lives of their ghetto tenants and pretty much the rest of outside world being as chaotic and messed up as Fool, his uncle, his sister, and the rest of the neighborhood see them. Fresh off the anticlimactic second season of TWIN PEAKS, Robie and McGill play off one another in a similar way to how their characters feed of each other's madness which is represented as the normal while the stair children, Fool, Alice, and particularly Roach ("…in the walls doing his business God knows where!") as the unruly element. There do seem to be scenes missing – in addition to the opening liquor store robbery referenced in the dialogue and definitely part of the script – such as an introduction of Fool's Grandpa Booker (Bill Cobbs, I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER) who should be the positive mentor figure (as Ruby offers up weak opposition to Leroy's cajoling of Fool to commit burglary). He simply pops up in the film's third act to demonstrate the positive male influence in Fool's life. In spite of its missteps, the film remains one of the highpoints of nineties studio horror.
Released theatrically and on VHS and laserdisc by Universal Pictures, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS hit barebones DVD from Universal Pictures solo and in a double bill with SHOCKER. Arrow Video beat Shout to the Blu-ray with a packed special edition in 2013, and it looked like Region A-locked viewers would be deprived of their own special edition when Universal released a barebones Blu-ray the following year (when it seemed as though future Scream acquisitions from Universal were unlikely). Scream's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer probably comes from the same master which is somewhat inconsistent-looking. The film was shot on early 500 speed film stock but sufficiently lit for the most part, and some more pronounced grain in some candlelit sequences looking appropriate. While the enhanced definition does reveal the rubbery-ness of K.N.B.'s gore effects and the inauthenticity of the house's building materials, a degree of noise reduction robs the woodwork and the make-up of the stair people of a degree of texture (although the stair people design was never that impressive). The unmatted cassette versions of this film revealed at the bottom of the frame during the scene in which Langer is dropped into a scalding bath that the smoke was coming from outside of the tub, and this is still apparent in the widescreen transfers (including the Blu-ray). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upmixing of the Dolby Stereo soundtrack gives the score some more breathing room and depth to the more wilder parts of the sound design but will seem restrained compared to a contemporary 5.1 mix (a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included). Optional English subtitles are also provided and highlight some of the dialogue from extras.
Extras start off with a pair of new commentary tracks. The first is with writer/director Craven – moderated by Michael Felsher – and is a very rewarding listen in which the director gives autobiographical context to recurring elements in his filmography, the effects of trickle-down economics, and links the fear and vilification of the inhabitants of the ghetto to the conservative ideal of the American family values. Felsher also draws parallels between THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS and THE HILLS HAVE EYES more so than A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, SHOCKER, or any of his later works. The second track featuring actors Adams, Langer, Whalen, and Yan Burg (who plays the "Stairmaster") is more anecdotal and not as informative but makes for an entertaining way to watch the film with an audience. They laugh at the film's quotable dialogue, point out mistakes that were left in the film for effect (Langer really slipping in the Leroy's blood and nearly whacking her head on a bucket and the prop poker breaking over McGill's back and Adams' reaction to the gaffe which works in context), recall Craven's patience with them, and mutually agree that THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS was the best film on which they all worked.
The disc also includes a series of interviews. In "House Mother" (19:26), Robie fondly remembers how the film gave her a second career in "psycho bitch" roles, working with Langer, and her notion that the horrors the parents perpetrate on the children in the film was what was done to them (not forgiving their actions but suggesting where they learned their idea of normality). In "House of Horrors" (16:09), cinematographer Sandi Sissel discusses her early career in documentary as well as the challenges of lighting both the sets (particularly the basement) and the make-up effects. In "Settling the Score" (10:13), composer Don Peake describes how Craven – who was part of the same meditation group – to score THE HILLS HAVE EYES as well as being asked to supplement Graeme Revell's (DEAD CALM) cues. He delivered three demo tracks to Craven that the director ended up (both composers work is represented on the soundtrack CD).
In "What Lies Beneath" (15:01), effects designers Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger discuss their work on the film – illustrated with behind the scenes footage shot by Nicotero – which included their first full body cast (of Rhames), the mold of which would be reused by them on several more films. They also discuss the concept behind the stair people make-up (which also included their first use of soft contact lenses). The uninterrupted behind the scenes footage is also on hand (6:38) featuring Craven joking around with the crew. The vintage making-of featurette (3:43) is more of a long teaser reel. The theatrical trailer (1:18) has only teaser narration and no dialogue from the film to give an indication of what the film is really about as a series of quick cuts of characters running through hallways and between walls. The TV Spots (1:21) are similar assemblages of the same footage. The disc also includes a storyboards (6:52) and still gallery (4:17). The cover is reversible (superior original art on the inside) and a slipcover is included. (Eric Cotenas)
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