The People Under the Stairs (USA, 1991) - Color, Director(s): Wes Craven
MPAA Rating: R
Approx. 102 min.
Z-rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Cheese Factor: 3 stars out of 5
By this time, Craven was an established director with movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and even a few Twilight Zone episodes under his belt. This film is described as a horror comedy and I suppose it does fall along those lines. This is also such a strange movie, I'm not really sure how to categorize it. If you haven't seen this movie yet, I would recommend skipping this review and going straight to the movie. This is one of those films that's better when you're not sure what to expect.
If I were to give a quick summary, the film is about two men and a kid trying to rob a house only to find it filled with hidden doors, secret passageways, and booby traps. There are cannibalistic children locked in the basement and the owners are completely psychotic. From that summary alone, it would probably sound something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but there's so much more to it. The movie opens with a family getting evicted because they're unable to pay their rent. On top of that, the mother is ill and needs a surgery they can't afford. The landlords want to level the building a put a condominium in its place. Ving Rhames comes to the child ("Fool" played by Brandon Adams) with a proposition to rob the landlords, The Robesons. If you went into the movie not knowing what to expect, the first act plays out like a hood drama and reminded me a little of the movie Fresh. The Robesons come off as a little eccentric but not too different from how greedy rich people are typically portrayed... at first glance.
Not until they actually make it into the house does the extent of The Robesons' true madness becomes apparent. This reminded me a lot of From Dusk Till Dawn, how it starts off like some kind of crime thriller until they get to the Titty Twister. Once inside the house, Fool finds their associate murdered and fed to a bunch of cannibal children living in the basement. One of them (Roach) escaped into the walls of the house and survived with the help of a seemingly normal girl named Alice. The Robesons, who just go by Mommy and Daddy, kill Ving Rhames with sadistic glee before Daddy dons a BDSM murder suit and fires randomly into the walls with a shotgun hoping to kill Roach. Mommy is an abusive, overbearing authoritarian like the mother in Carrie. The issue of "Why don't people ever call the cops in these types of movies?" is addressed when Fool actually escapes and tries to report The Robesons for child abuse. With their slaughter dungeon obscured by a shelf, they act like totally normal people in front of the police.
This movie is more of a Black Comedy than Horror with lines like "Yeah, and maybe the President will make me Secretary of Pussy" delivered by Ving Rhames. Daddy is a buffoon who is constantly getting clocked over the head, he prances around with child-like delight whenever he thinks he's gotten the best of Fool, and I swear he sounded like Jim Carrey on more than one occasion. One time he's standing there with a shotgun and Fool comes outta nowhere with a dick punch that catches him off-guard. This movie will keep you guessing at every turn.
Nudity: None, although incest and sexual child abuse is hinted at.
Gore: Ving Rhames' body is cut up and fed to the cannibals, a severed hand is fed to a dog, and someone is attacked by a group of cannibals.
Awesome: Very. The eccentric Robesons, and their house, reminded me of The Addams Family. On the commentary track for Scream! Factory's Blu-ray release of this film, Craven says he was inspired by a news report about a family that kept their children locked up their entire lives. The kids were only discovered when neighbors called the police after seeing burglars break into their home. Craven is truly a pioneer, The Last House on the Left has a gritty chainsaw murder 2 years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Hills Have Eyes paved the way for movies like Wrong Turn. And this movie featured Ving Rhames with a gimp 3 years before Pulp Fiction does, although Rhames doesn't get sodomized here. I highly recommend this one for anyone who enjoys dark humor.