With home invasion movies having something of a renaissance this year, thanks to the likes of You’re Next and The Purge, it seems as good as ever to re-visit Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs. Of course unlike your normal home invasion film, including Craven who has a penchant for this sub-genre of horror, The People Under The Stairs is more about folks trying to escape a house of horrors having previously broken into it.
With his family struggling to pay the rent, Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) agrees to help Leroy (Ving Rhames) rob the home of their dastardly landlords. But having forced entry to the surprisingly fortress-like home, Fool and Leroy discover a group of scary cannibals in the basement, an angelic girl called Alice (A.J. Langer) who is lorded over by a dominating father figure (Everett McGill) and maniacal mother (Wendy Robie). Suffice to say, the people under the stairs are the least of their worries.
While in an interview on the Arrow Blu-ray director Craven sites a true story – a kind of Josef Fritzl deal of kids being kept in basements – as the inspiration for The People Under The Stairs, it’s hard not to see the previous year’s Home Alone as a key inspiration. While John Hughes’ kiddy romp saw Macaulay Culkin setting all manner of elaborate, Looney Tune-like traps to thwart his home invaders, The People Under The Stairs sees Adams caught in a house of stair-slides, trap-doors and endless secret passages to help him keep one step ahead of his pursuers.
With its mostly self-contained plot device there is plenty of opportunity for horror but given this is a Wes Craven film the scares are surprisingly absent. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, the story hurtles along at break-neck speed with many inventive and entertaining set pieces to be enjoyed. The underlying themes of class war, wherein the rich get richer and the poor get shot at, mauled by dogs and chased around by people in gimp costumes, feels shoe-horned in at the last minute but it at least offers a paper-thin reason to include certain characters and motifs.
The film’s biggest problem though is its bipolar nature. One minute it can be a vaguely interesting thriller, complete with tame-by-modern-comparison gore, the next it’s a bizarre slapstick comedy. Fans of Craven will know this is something he often flirts with, none more so than Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddie Krueger, and it works, just not in a well mixed cake successfully risen kind of way, instead it feels a little lopsided. There are some funny moments that will have you laughing, there are some moments when you’ll be rooting for the heroes to getaway, it just won’t be at the same time.
The sort of film that would probably work best had you seen it young, The People Under The Stairs is a nostalgic thriller that comes close to being a Goonies for adults.