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October 2, 2011

The People Under the Stairs

by Franz Patrick


People Under the Stairs, The (1991)
★★ / ★★★★

Dexter (Brandon Quintin Adams), nicknamed Fool, just turned thirteen. His family was on the verge of getting kicked out of their home and their mother requiring surgery didn’t help out their financial matters. But Leroy (Ving Rhames), the man staying with the family, had an idea: They would break into a mortician’s house because word went around that there was valuable gold inside. Unbeknownst to them, the suspicious couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) who owned the house kept people in the cellar against their will. The house was designed like a fortress equipped with secret compartments and booby traps. Written and directed by Wes Craven, “The People Under the Stairs” was inspired by stories of parents who kept their children hidden in their basements for years. Although an obvious exaggeration from what could be the truth, in some ways, the film worked because it spent the majority of its time in allowing Dexter to navigate himself through the tricky walls and threatening empty hallways. Not only did he had to deal with a menacing dog with a craving for human flesh but there seemed to be no way out. The windows were locked from the outside, screams of help led to no avail because the house was sound-proof, and the front door was rigged with electricity. However, what I found to be less effective was the picture’s inability to separate unintentional humor and satire. For instance, the man of the house liked to wear a leather costume, from head to toe, when hunting down people who broke into his home. He was supposed to be a scary figure, with spikes and all, but it just looked ridiculous on him. Watching him parade around in that outfit made me feel like I was stuck in a bad haunted house walkthrough. Obvious comedic scenes consisted of Dexter using bricks to disarm his enemies or a delivering a punch to the groin. It didn’t quite fit into the idea of two sick minds kidnapping children (A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen) and sending them to the basement when the couple’s expectations weren’t met. And why were all of their faces deformed? The movie neglected to explain. Maybe it was supposed to scare us but it just turned out to be bad make-up. “The People Under the Stairs” started off relatively strong because it made us curious about what was happening in the creepy house, but it grew weaker over time because it got bogged down into trying to amuse us instead of answering the questions that caught our interests in the first place. It certainly had potential because it had classic fairy tale elements, like the evil parents and the treasure in the house, but the film lacked enough focus for the fairy tale and horror to coincide and deliver something unique.

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