Worth A Look: 19.05%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 14.29%
1 review, 15 user ratings
|People Under the Stairs, The
by David Hollands
The overrated director Wes Craven has created what is probably his most tonally disjointed, yet most satisfying picture. The People Under the Stairs is a movie you most likely won’t enjoy due to its dark subject matter. Yet one can’t argue that it doesn’t get the job done.A young boy named Fool lives with his mother and sister in a run-down building owned by people who only care for money, and hardly for the value of human life. His sister’s boyfriend Leroy has obtained a document detailing the gold coins that the owners of the ghetto have locked in their home, and he enlists Fool’s help in stealing the gold from right under the owners’ noses. However, they may be in for more than they bargained for, as these owners are about five cans short of a six pack. They enter a house that has seriously deformed people locked in the basement, a child kept hidden and abused, and sadistic booby traps, with a vicious guard dog wrapping the package.
"Wes Craven's only recommendable film."
Craven wrote the screenplay for this film. His writing is surprisingly above average here. The characters here, at least for the first few acts, don’t do anything too stupid. We never have characters simply putting themselves in danger, and instead, everyone in danger always tries to do the best thing to get out of it. Fool, despite the name, is a hero we can all come to love, based on his caring, yet careful actions. We never want any of the good guys in this flick to die, as they are all nicely drawn characters. Even Leroy, a character Craven writes as extremely mean and uncaring, is oddly likable just because he comes across as cool. Naturally, him denying Fool access to a hiding place in one moment is downright despicable, but there really wasn’t enough room in said place for them both. And yeah, the right thing would probably be fore Leroy to give the young Fool his hiding place, but Craven isn’t interested in telling a story about how characters change in difficult situations. He keeps his characters’ traits totally in check for the first half, allowing us to never be overcome by glaring character shifts.
Much of this film takes place in the ghetto owners’ huge home, and Craven knows how to make us feel totally trapped along with the characters who are stuck in this big place. Once inside, Craven’s script hardly ever ventures outside again unless totally necessary. He never goes to a shot outside the house looking in, and as a result, the camera becomes the audience in a most effective. We become trapped in this foreboding place along with our characters, and as the film progresses, the hopeless tone starts to work its way further and further inside our heads. As a result, this is an extremely uncomfortable film to sit though, at least for the first half. Craven has created some really dark moments here. I’m thinking especially of a few haunting moments in which Fool must venture between the walls and in the basement of the house.
A few of Craven’s films, no matter how flawed they may be, have themes of class differences running underneath them. Here, the villains are white psychopaths oppressing black people. The social commentary is powerful stuff, and quite refreshing to find in an otherwise straightforward horror picture. Unfortunately, Craven allows his theme to go way too far. During the conclusion, Craven breaks up a tense moment by having everyone in the ghetto showing up to give the villains Hell. The dialogue during this moment, combined with cheesy music, turns it into one of those syrupy moments that you’d expect to find in any Hollywood drama with similar themes. It’s sad that Craven would resort to these methods, as he has usually been quite excellent in presenting them in past films. They were always under the radar, and no one ever really made huge statements drawing our attention to them. Here, it’s exactly the opposite.
Another major problem is that the tone is a mess here. Craven unfortunately doesn’t stick to a truly horrific tone, and he instead tries to create more of a black comedy. While much of the film is quite disturbing, some of it simply doesn’t work at all. There are many moments where Craven inserts some silly sequences to try and lighten the mood. These include moments like one of the owners getting hit with a rock, and the owners running around their house screaming like Hannibal Lector clones. The funny and horrific tones are in constant conflict. One gets the idea that Craven never knows what type of film he’s actually trying to make. Some moments are disturbing, and those are then followed up by a comedic moment which seems completely out of place.
This movie keeps getting more insane, to the point where it becomes an utter mess by its conclusion. Craven makes the mistake of having Fool get out of the house at the half-way point. Promising to return to the house to rescue the owners’ daughter, he quickly heads back, but without even a single word from either his sister or his mother. They just let him go from that moment on, allowing him to head right back into danger, something that seriously stretches credibility. Also, Craven has his character do some extremely outlandish things to advance the plot during the final half hour. Things like suddenly crawling across a roof in one of the most ridiculous scenes ever conceived, or Fool setting up a complicated candle trap for one of the owners in mere seconds, while the owner is quickly advancing towards him from the next room.
One could argue that Craven intended this film to be a dark fairy tale. Fool, in the later half, is trying to save the mean owners’ daughter who’s name is Alice. Alice, of course, as in Alice in Wonderland. The house itself is a fantastic piece of production design, with so many elements linking to fairy tales. We have secret passages, foreboding basements, and huge hallways that look like castle corridors. Also, all of the children locked in the basement have had several portions of their anatomy removed, an element that lends itself well to the whole Grimm’s Fairy Tales aspect. Unfortunately, Craven creates a film that’s too light hearted in many moments, and then other seriously disturbing moments that come off as too heavy when compared to those light moments. It just isn’t dark enough to feel like a true fairy tale, although it has all the trappings of the genre. It is a commendable effort on Craven’s part that he would have attempted this. Sadly, it just doesn’t pay off.
Cinematographer Sandi Sissel uses colours that don’t really reflect Craven’s fairy tale aspect, instead choosing very realistic tones. That doesn’t quite work, and while I’m usually a fan of cinematographers using realistic lighting to make the film feel like the events are happening in reality, there are just some cases where this doesn’t work. There’s also no real depth to the cinematography. Aside from some haunting shots of flashlights poking through cracks in wooden beams, there’s just nothing of interest here. When Fool’s in the basement, things are simply too bright, and the audience can clearly see what’s hiding in the “shadows” at every instance. Truly disappointing, as this is a film which would naturally rely a lot on its photography to set the right mood and create a good effect.
Although you can never credit Craven as being a perfect storyteller, he sure can direct his films. Everything in this flick looks incredibly cinematic and alive. There’s some great production design, of which Craven takes full advantage to enhance the visuals. There are moments in which he uses Stanley Kubrick-esque techniques to create depth in an image, and the many steady-cam shots employed when Fool is moving through the walls are, although pretty poorly edited together in some instances, nerve-jangling.
The acting is good across the board. Brandon Adams makes a wonderful child lead. He is slightly bland at times, but otherwise, he’s wonderfully adept at bringing his character across. We know when he’s scared, but what’s also good is that Adams always seems to know what he’s doing, rather than being the stereotypical child in a horror film who is simply used to get cheap reactions from the audience. Also good is A.J. Langer as Alice. As the abused child, she brings a nice realism to the film, turning in a shy performance that sticks very well. However, there is a glitch at one point in which her voice suddenly changes drastically, going from high tone to a low tone. I would have expected such a puberty-related flaw to be cleaned up in post-production, but I suppose Craven supposed no one would notice.
In the role of the evil parents, Everitt McGill and Wendy Robie are fun to watch. These two will have you rolling on your sides with laughter. The downside is that there’s no menace coming from these characters. While they are fun to watch, I’m not exactly sure if that was the intention. These two appear much more goofy than scary, something which does hurt the film a lot, especially considering that these two appear in scenes that are obviously meant to be disturbing. Yet a cinematic psychotic mother screaming “KA-KA!!!” at odd intervals, and a cinematic psychotic father making comic book-like expressions just isn’t scary.
Craven relies on a little gore in this film, and the moments which really go far are pretty well done. The gore looks fairly realistic, although a too-white skeleton and a disembowelled body look a little phoney. However, a fake dog’s head used in scenes of animal attacks is very nice-looking, and pretty convincing even though we all can still vaguely tell that it is a prop. Still, what’s here should please gore hounds.
Don Peake is on hand to create the score, along with some additional pieces by Graeme Revell, and it is pretty good. Although Peake’s music for The Hills Have Eyes was more intense, Peake still has a knowledge of what works musically. There’s a violently scary undercurrent in the music that works effectively throughout the film. The jump scares are wonderfully timed, with Peake using utter silence effectively before piercing it with a fierce musical stinger that wonderfully creates an effective jolt.The People Under the Stairs stands as Wes Craven’s best film. Although filled with errors, I can’t deny that it was a fun ride. I’ve decided to give it a firm two and a half stars rounded up to three. Solid horror, and a nice guilty pleasure as well.
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originally posted: 01/19/04 09:33:30