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  People Under the Stairs, The To Have And Have Not
Year: 1991
Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, Jeremy Roberts, Connie Marie Brazelton, Joshua Cox, John Hostetter, John Mahon, Teresa Velarde, George R. Parker, Yan Birch
Genre: Horror, ComedyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Young Fool (Brandon Adams) has been brought up in the ghetto and a life of poverty is the only life he has ever known, but now things are getting ever more desperate. He lives with his ailing mother and siblings in a dingy apartment and it looks as if they will be evicted soon because they are behind in their rent: they need money fast. Enter the unscrupulous Leroy (Ving Rhames) who has a proposal for Fool that will see him assist in the robbery of their landlords who are reputed to have a stash of gold coins hidden somewhere in their mansion house. And Leroy looks positively saintly compared to those landlords...

A curio from writer and director Wes Craven, The People Under the Stairs saw the horror filmmaker venturing into more poltical territory - it's no coincidence that the end credits feature the theme to Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing over them. Mix in some gruesome detail, cat and mouse pursuit and a large dollop of broad humour and the result was this mishmash of social commentary about the poor's exploitation by the rich, and the rich here were hopelessly corrupt. Some saw the landlords, a couple who it turns out are not husband and wife but brother and sister, as a lampooning of the Reagans, but really the script was not so specific.

For the mayhem to get underway Fool has to break into the house, and although he is a good kid and shrewd with it, dire straits ensure he must turn to crime: point one of the social comment. The landlords are never named, simply called "Man" and "Woman" in the credits, but they call each other Daddy and Mommy and in an inspired casting choice are played by the actors who played a husband and wife team on the cult television show Twin Peaks. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie were that pair, and they essay their villainous roles here to the hilt, both despicable and funny in a sick kind of way as they pervert wholesome family values.

That mansion is something of a fortress, so Fool and Leroy, with accomplice Spenser (Jeremy Roberts), have to use all their wits to get inside, which involves dressing Fool up as a cookie-selling boy scout and Spenser as a gas man. Fool gets nowhere, but Spenser is invited in, a mistake that costs him his life; not that the other two are aware of that until they break in after they see the couple leave in their car, a task which is easier said than done. But they do manage to get access to the kitchen after negotiating shutters, locks and a fierce Rottweiler only to face a fresh problem: how do they get out again?

The house is packed with traps to kill off the unwary, and that's not all as there are a collection of unwanted "children" who the landlords keep in the basement and feed human flesh, usually burglars or salesmen or anyone unlucky to come to the door. Investigating, Fool finds the people under the stairs of the title, but they're more the victims than the villains, as is a teenage girl called Alice (A.J. Langer) who is terrorised by her "mother" into being a "good" girl, or else she will end up living in the cellar being fed on intruders. Credit must go to production designer Bryan Jones for creating such a claustrophobic and Gothic setting for the characters to exist in as the house with its pitfalls and danger is almost a character in itself, and Craven had come up with a streak of originality in his film, but it was sabotaged by too much jokiness and buffoonery. Not fatally, but there was little that was truly disturbing when it seemed like one big romp, clever as it was. Music by Don Peake.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Wes Craven  (1939 - )

Intelligent American director, producer and writer, at his most effective when, perhaps paradoxically, he was at his most thoughtful. Controversial shocker Last House on the Left set him on a path of horror movies, the best of which are The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, New Nightmare and Scream (which revitalised the slasher genre).

Less impressive are Deadly Blessing, Swamp Thing, the ridiculous Hills Have Eyes Part II, Deadly Friend, Shocker, Vampire in Brooklyn, Cursed and the successful Scream sequels (the last of which was his final movie). Music of the Heart was a change of pace for Craven, but not a hit, though aeroplane thriller Red Eye was a successful attempt at something different; My Soul To Take, an attempt at more of the same, flopped. One of the pioneers of the American new wave of horror of the 1970s and 80s, he brought a true edge, wit and imagination to the genre.

 
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