Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Forgotten Horrors #2: The People Under the Stairs

"In every neighborhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid."

Wes Craven wrote and directed this surrealistic horror-comedy, which was inspired by a true story of parents keeping their children locked in a basement for years. Fool (Brandon Adams), an African-American teen, breaks into the home of the wealthy landlords who evicted his family from a ghetto tenement. A fortune in gold coins is rumored to exist inside, but Fool discovers that the mansion is a chamber of horrors presided over by a pair of incestuous, serial killer siblings (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). The twisted couple has also tried to raise a succession of kidnapped boys. Each botched effort is handled the same way -- the victim's eyes, ears and tongues are removed, and he's sent to live in the sealed-off basement, where a colony of similarly deformed "brothers" resides. Fool is able to avoid the evil lovers as he moves through the house's maze of hidden passageways. He discovers that the occupants have a daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), who has survived their abuse, so he rescues her and they attempt to free the "people under the stairs."

We all remember those times in our youth when we went strolling around the 'ol neighborhood with our pals, chatting away about building forts, jumping over cracks so we wouldn't 'break our mother's backs', ducking behind bushes when cars would drive past, sneaking cigarettes or torn pages from someone's dad's skimpy magazines, and we definitely...most DEFINITELY took an alternate route past the Spooky House at the end of the block. Like the tagline of The People Under the Stairs states: there was a lot of avoidance when it came to dealings with the unknown.

"I wonder what He does to them?"


"Old Man Jones, dude!"

"W-w-ho is Old Man Jones?"

"You've GOT to be kidding me right? Old man Jones? He's only THE most infamous kidnapper in Mulberry Grove! They say he still lives up there, all alone, waiting for that one perfect moment to snag another child so he can cook him up and put him in his stew."

"Oh, Bologna. That story isn't true. It's just something your parents told you so you wouldn't go snooping around some old guys house. Let's go..."

And the rest is history. Now, I don't know about you guys, but I definitely had experiences like that growing up and I definitely made sure I was home before those streetlights turned on. The same applies to the first time you ever saw Stephen King's IT on television and never walked past another storm drain again. Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs is a perfect illustration of these apprehensions, but unfortunately never quite reaches its full potential to frighten the audience into sleepless nights and visits to the town psychologist.

More than likely, depending on what age you were when you first saw this film, you were either scared to death or you turned the VCR/DVD player off halfway through and called it a night. After reading a few reviews of the movie I gathered that the majority of the viewers who were disappointed didn't particularly care for the comedy aspect and I can understand that. I can also understand why some reviews stated that the film was "all over the place" and was very "cartoonish" at times. I on the other hand thought the comedy helped to balance the over-the-top behavior presented by Everett McGill and his delicious companion Wendy Robie. I mean, seriously, the guy gets his rocks off by dressing up in bondage gear while toting a shotgun around the house in search of the Thing in the walls (perfectly named Roach might I add). McGill's character is absolutely entertaining in this movie and his ramblings about religion and people "burning in hell" if they cross him is just too creepy and bizarre not to enjoy. There is an element of absurdity in the movie too which helps the viewer fully understand the total lunacy of McGill and Robie's characters. Whoever says that the bathtub scene when Robie throws A.J. Langer into the boiling hot water as punishment for getting her new dress bloody isn't horrifying then I must be off my rocker. Or what about the scene where we find McGill's character slicing off a piece of Spencer's flesh in the basement and slowly turning towards the camera, chewing relentlessly as Fool watches in terror. These are pretty horrific moments folks. Moments that a young viewer never forgets.

Either way you slice the cadaver it's still a great piece of entertainment and still has the ability to freak me the hell out. As my good bud Ron and I like to say:
"It certainly makes for a wonderful Saturday afternoon popcorn flick."

1 comment:

  1. Classic film. There's very few out there that can convey such a chillingly realistic portrayal of child abuse and yet be so over-the-top nuts at the same time. Thanks for "digging" this one up.