Despite the amount of respect that he has in the horror community, Wes Craven is really only known for two franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. His other films have been hit-and-miss, but fans of the genre still flock to his work. Cinema Fearité has already covered his two “deadly” movies, Deadly Blessing and Deadly Friend, but in the years between A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, Craven also made classics like The Serpent and the Rainbow in 1988, Shocker in 1989, and, in 1991, a little ode to the house that every kid in the neighborhood avoided called The People Under the Stairs.
The People Under the Stairs is the story of a boy named Poindexter Williams (Brandon Adams from The Sandlot), or Fool as his friends call him, whose family is being evicted from their ghetto apartment in Los Angeles by their evil landlords (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, both from “Twin Peaks”). Fool’s sister’s boyfriend, Leroy (Dawn of the Dead’s Ving Rhames), has an idea; he wants to rob the landlords’ house to get the money to pay the rent. Fool accompanies Leroy to the house, which is a very large, unwelcoming structure in which the cruel landlords keep their daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer from “My So-Called Life”), locked up. Despite the house being protected by bulletproof glass, steel padlocks, and a large Rottweiler named Prince, the crooks find their way in. They locate the riches that they are looking for in the form of rare gold coins, but they also find a group of albino children locked in a booby-trapped dungeon in the basement. With the help of Alice and one of the cellar dwellers named Roach (Hatchet III’s Sean Whalen), Fool has to find a way to outsmart the landlords and escape the house…and free the prisoners in the basement, too.
Like many of his movies, The People Under the Stairs was both written and directed by Craven. The film has the dark and shadowy feel to it that was typical of early nineties horror. The influence of A Nightmare on Elm Street is highly evident in the melodramatic, almost theatrical staging of the film, yet it has an urban vibe that Craven would continue to explore in later films like Vampire in Brooklyn and My Soul to Take. It’s a pretty decent attempt at showing a real world, but with extremely surrealistic touches that pull the film into the horror realm. In a lot of ways, The People Under the Stairs is typical Craven; it’s creepy, disturbing, and has a killer sense of humor.
One of the more interesting things about Wes Craven’s films is his tendency to use young people as his main characters. Usually his films revolve around high school-age kids or younger, and The People Under the Stairs is no exception. Brandon Adams’ Fool is the hero of the story, and the young actor was barely twelve when the film was made. Similarly, A.J. Langer was seventeen when she portrayed Alice, although she looked years younger. Sean Whalen was actually in his twenties, but made up to look like a younger boy for the role of the trapped-in-the-walls Roach. One thing that can be said about Wes Craven is that he knows his audience, and the characters in The People Under the Stairs are relatable to his young demographic.
For such a frightening premise, The People Under the Stairs is surprisingly funny. Humor is interspersed throughout the film in a way that is comical, yet disturbing at the same time. For example, in one scene, Leroy and Fool are trying to escape the house, and Leroy grabs a doorknob that is wired to send a jolt of electricity through its victim. Fool touches it, and the shock goes through him into Leroy, and ends up in Prince the dog, electrocuting all three of them and leaving them panting on the floor. In another scene, Prince is chasing after Fool and, when Fool is cornered behind a door, he desperately reaches out and punches Prince in the face, causing the dog to yelp. Neither of these situations are particularly funny, but they still garner laughs because of the way Craven captures them. Another awkwardly funny moment occurs when the male landlord (neither seems to have a name) prances around the house in a leather bondage outfit while searching for Leroy and Fool, explaining why Ving Rhames was so freaked out by The Gimp in Pulp Fiction a few years later. As if all of that weren’t enough, The People Under the Stairs includes a near-perfect Scooby-Doo hallway scene. Whether it’s snark little one-liners or full-fledged slapstick humor, The People Under the Stairs contains almost as many laughs as it does screams.
Although he is the butt of many jokes, Prince the Rottweiler is one of the unsung stars of The People Under the Stairs. The canine is brought to life through a mixture of cinematic techniques. Most of the film, Prince is portrayed by a real dog, but for some of the more dangerous stunts, robotics or puppets are used. The dog effects were designed by Robert Clark, who also helped bring Cujo to life. Puppeteer Timothy Huizing (Seed of Chucky) also contributes to the furry fun, controlling the animatronic Prince’s head. Between getting electrocuted, punched, stabbed, and shot at, poor Prince takes a hell of a beating throughout the movie, and things do not go well for him in the end, so those who are sensitive to that kind of thing should be warned. But, of all the characters in The People Under the Stairs, it’s the most fun to cheer for good old Prince.
The special effects for The People Under the Stairs were done by an up-and-coming team who called themselves the K.N.B. EFX Group. The K was for Robert Kurtzman, who has done visuals for everything from TerrorVision to John Dies at the End. The N and the B stood for Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, respectively, who are both famous today for their make-up effects on “The Walking Dead.” While the effects in The People Under the Stairs aren’t nearly indicative of what the trio was (and still is) capable of pulling off, the sparsely used bloody body parts and gore effects look great where they appear. The cellar dwellers even have a zombie-like appearance, foreshadowing the trend that would give Nicotero and Berger their bread-and-butter work in 21st century television.
The reason that Wes Craven is best known for Scream and A Nightmare on Elm Street is clear; those are his most cohesive and confident films. However, the gap in time between the two franchises was filled with more than just sequels, and The People Under the Stairs is a good example of what Craven can do in a one-off movie.