Scream Factory Presents – The People Under The Stairs (1991)

Like a neophyte, blunderbuss George Romero, Wes Craven often merged social commentary into his macabre tales. The difference is Romero never forgot to also be suspenseful and not veer to far from the intent of terror. In the frustratingly dawdling horror-comedy People Under The Stairs, he deconstructs the Reagan-Era fantasy of the nuclear family with Everett McGill and Wendy Robie as facsimiles of Ronald and Nancy (especially disciplinarian McGill’s oil-slick black hair). It’s a bit of a muddled stretch (with night-vision air raid footage from the Persian Gulf) but Craven is more incisive with the racial gentrification and ghettoized motif.

It’s Stygian circumstances that coerce the main character to align himself with Leroy (Ving Rhames). It might seem incendiary to postulate that because the characters are black, they are disregarded by the landlord and verging on eviction, but there is a ring of truth to Craven’s urban portrait in the vein of Spike Lee. It’s a skin-crawling anti-yuppie nightmare with the minorities literally being enslaved by the WASP-y blue-bloods.

One of my pet peeves is overly resourceful, feisty children and Brandon Adams’ jive-talking Poindexter “Fool” Williams is a nuisance with the attitude of a miniaturized Richard Roundtree. For his role, Craven manipulates us with the ill-advised child-in-peril ploy but “Daddy” and “Mommy” are bumbling ignoramuses for the most part so they barely pose a threat since they don’t eliminate him when they have a chance.

Meanwhile, Everett and Robie are the possibly incestuous showstoppers. In his introduction, Everett is gnashing on a mound of meat while spitting out the buckshot shells which is suggestive of trespasser cannibalism. The gimp mask rampage is another gonzo set piece but the repetition with the Rottweiler chases rapidly wear thin our patience.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre quest is fatuous and once Rhames is ejected from the movie, it devolves into a geek show with another one of my debilitating issues: inbred, freakish cellar-dwellers who are secretly sidekicks to the protagonist (ex. The tongue-less Roach who prowls through the walls’ crawlspace). The music sounds like low-grade Bernard Hermann reinterpreted for a Lifetime movie. Ving enlivens the film’s booby-trapped first half (“Maybe the president will make me Secretary of Pussy”) but his early departure bodes a glossy do-over of The Hills Have Eyes.

Rating: 2.25 out of 5

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