31 Days of Horror – October 28th – “The People Under the Stairs”

After the success of Five Nights at Freddy’s, I figured I’d go back to the Peacock well and see what I could find to whet my appetite tonight. I know I’ve looked through their catalog before but I’ve not looked recently and found a few things that struck my fancy. Ultimately I felt the call of a Wed Craven 90’s classic. I picked this one up not too long ago as a blind buy from the Shout/Scream Factory collection so I thought it was time that I fired it up. Being lazy, I just streamed it instead of getting the disc out. I know I should have, not because I had to endure any commercials, thankfully. But because the quality is still higher when you watch from a disc. But that would require me to get up so I decided not to and let Peacock indulge my laziness.

The People Under the Stairs IMDb

This film happens to to be the last of Craven’s horror movies in the 90’s for me to have seen now. I’ve not viewed his entire filmography but outside of a couple more recent strays, I’ve unintentionally worked my way backwards through most of his career. When I put this one on, I had forgotten that I had already watched Vampire in Brooklyn. It’s interesting to take a look at his filmmaking at the beginning of the 90’s in this film, the middle of the 90’s in Vampire and the beginning of his Scream franchise going into the latter part of the decade. I won’t say that I’m a massive connoisseur of Craven’s work. Most of his stuff that I’ve seen, I’ve only watched once with probably the exception of the Scream franchise. Clearly he learned to be far more hands on after his work on the Nightmare franchise. The best installments of that series were helmed by him, though there were a couple solid sequels that fell under the watch of other directors. Even that is a curious notation in his career. New Line Cinemas is often affectionately referred to as the “House that Freddy built” which is largely true when you go back through the saga of the Nightmare movies. Hearing the way executives spoke about the early days of the studio and how they managed to survive and thrive over time is hugely due to the massive success of Freddy Kruger. And not that all that is solely due to Craven but you can’t help but tip a cap to the man who made Freddy what he is. By being the man who bookended the first Nightmare film with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, it definitively shows his ability had only grown stronger from the time he began the story of Freddy Kruger to the final installment in the series. The Craven films are arguably the strongest out of all of them, which is probably all around one of the better collective horror franchises of them all. It does make me curious to sit down and watch Craven’s “Shocker” deliberately that this film precedes People Under the Stairs and New Nightmare comes right after it. Shocker is a couple years before and New Nightmare a few years after. I know in the past I’ve seen clips here and there of Shocker but I’ve never made a concerted effort to sit down and intentionally watch that movie just because. But I feel like that would give even greater perspective to see how his progression changed as he moved out of the 80’s and into the 90’s.

This is another one of those movies that I know I’d seen clips of here and there in a Saturday afternoon movie but never sat down to actually watch in it’s entirety. It definitely has that early 90’s feel to it. Casting definitely has a lot to do with that. Brandon Adams in his pre-Mighty Ducks role. A.J. Langer before she went all grunge in My So Called Life. Sean Whalen’s first appearance in anything before he became one of those guys you’d see pop up here and there in a bunch of stuff in the 90’s. Just go watch Twister and before long you’ll be like “Ohhhh yeah!” I believe he even had one of the more classic “Got Milk?” ads as well. Ving Rhames is relatively timeless in my opinion so I don’t want to pigeon hole him into a 90’s presence but it was nice to see him as well. Even the theme of a slum lords wanting to put out urban tenants for some kind of land development deal is one of those 90’s plot lines they just seemed to eat up during that decade. There’s just a number of things that really scream out to this era of film making that makes this movie somewhat fun to watch.

So the flip side of these evil slum lords is the notion that they’re sitting on some rare coins that Ving and crew, including young Brandon as “Fool”. The first thing they have to do is make their way inside the heavily fortified, rather large house that “Mother” and “Father” aka “Woman” and “Man” take up residence. This is an easier said than done sort of task. Eventually the team of would be robbers make it into the house and begin to explore but cannot find the treasure held within this great house’s walls. But that’s not the only thing hidden in this house. There’s all manner of tortured souls being held against their wills in this house. Some are corralled in the basement as some kind of ghoulish trophy case it would seem. Sean Whalen runs around in the walls. He had his tongue cut out because apparently he got a little mouthy. And then A.J. Langer is this pseduo-daughter for this brother/sister combo who actually live in the whose. So the whole thing is nice and sane from the onset. So over the course of looking for a way out of the house, Fool finds one of the two adults who duped him into helping them rob this place. And when I say he found him, he found his corpse. He’s clearly dead. So it’s now up to Ving Rhames and this child to try and escape. And it’s not working out for them very well. Especially once Man and Woman return.

The first thing Man and Woman find, which again, these are their character names that you can find on IMDb, is the giant van that our trio of bandits decided to park in the driveway. This triggers man to go put on his full body, S&M leather suit. It’s so weird. He grabs this suit and his gun and begins hunting the people in the house. Eventually he finds Ving and blows him away and does a celebratory dance that is incredibly Caucasian. Woman realizes from the scout garb leftover in the van that Fool, who’s ploy at selling cookies earlier flopped hard, is with the now deceased robbers. So there’s one more body to claim. Only it turns out at this point that Fool has gotten pretty decent at navigating the house. Granted, he’s had some help from Sean Whalen. I prefer to call him Sean Whalen, using his full legal name, because I don’t really want to go back one more time and look his character up. So we’re going to just roll with Sean Whalen. So Fool is making his way around the house as man, in his full body, including mask, leather suit is just shooting at the walls haphazardly and releasing his rottweiler into various entry points of this wall maze. Eventually A.J. Langer joins fool in this intra-wall escape, to the chagrin of Man and Woman, and in the mix of it all, Man accidentally stabs through the wall and kills the dog. Fool and A.J. Langer, totally same boat as the Sean Whalen thing, make their way up to the attic. I don’t totally remember how but they do. And in the mix of all these completely reinforced windows and doors with heavy duty screens and locks on everything, there’s one giant window in the attic that’s just wide open. Fool takes it as this is their lucky day and tries to convince A.J. Langer that this is their shot to escape. She is overcome with fear and can’t join Fool. Not sure if it’s agoraphobia and doesn’t want to go outside. It could be she’s got some acrophobia and leaping from the terribly tall roof down into a small pond in the back yard has her on edge. Perhaps she’s just not really ready to face the 90’s head on having lived such a sheltered life up to this point. Whatever the case may be, she turns back at this pivotal moment as Fool makes a harrowing exit landing in the small pond and eventually exiting stage right off to the ghetto where the elderly black man from Air Bud is waiting to evaluate the handful of golden coins Fool was able to abscond with in the end.

It turns out that the few shiny trinkets Fool stole are incredibly valuable. This works out great for the plot or by this point you might be rethinking some of your life choices in watching this movie. These coins should cover their rent for some ridiculous amount of time as well as cover their mother’s much needed operation. I’m sure at one point somebody said why she’s sick and it’s more than likely one of those nice round number operations that they have in many films. I think when the older fellow conveying this news based on his apparent insider knowledge of the coin market shares the good news with the children, it’s meant to imply just how incredibly valuable these coins are after all. I may have had a “glass half empty” moment here but it took me in a different direction. These guys aren’t staying at the Ritz Carlton. They live in a shithole. What I would have preferred the messaging be would have been something more along the lines of now we have the means to live in a proper setting. Not that rewarding home invasion with adequate living is the moral I’d like anyone to take away from this movie, though it seems to be intrinsically linked regardless. But I’d prefer this family simply raise their standard of living to a reasonable expectation and maybe just not plan on living in a shithole for a really long time but to live in a moderately nicer home for maybe a more reasonable amount of time. It’s kind of one of those “Would You Rather” questions that I feel like makes really easy sense on which option to choose. Would you rather cash in these coins and get a real apartment without intense crime, black mold, and no real economic prospects for dozens of years OR go and find a reasonable apartment in a much safer and nicer neighborhood where your mother, sister and yourself can all live without constant fear of being stabbed at any moment for perhaps only 10 years or so. And I know that seemingly puts an unfair spin on things like I’m saying they’d have to move out in 10 years. No, not at all. I’m just saying these few coins they stole would only foot that bill for that time. They’re all free to become gainfully employed in the meantime and continue to elevate their own standard of living. I feel like this is a really easy choice. But unfortunately the movie doesn’t fully address this head on in the end. It may have been lost on the cutting room floor, alas.

One thing the movie does further explore is the significant head trauma that Fool must have endured at some point. Because after nearly being murdered a number of times over while actually witnessing the murder of two fully grown adults who brought him to a crazy house to commit larceny, Fool decides he can’t live life knowing A.J. Langer is still back at that house. That’s right. A girl he met that day who had exactly the same opportunity to leave when he did and escape with her life but opted not to take the incredibly simple way out of the house and into the safety of a nearby ghetto, seems to be calling his name from afar. And he just won’t be able to go on unless he somehow rescues her. So he calls in a tip to the police that something fishy is going on at this house. How to the police respond? They send all of the police to this house. All of them. They’re just everywhere. Not really doing much. Several are drinking coffee and enjoying snacks that Woman provides. Eventually the police realize that they can’t just be there not working for the rest of the time the movie is happening because we have to end the film. So they file out and Man and Woman are all tuckered out from the day’s goings on. They decide it’s time for bed. This is when we find out that Fool has snuck back into the house. What’s great is now he’s an expert on the house because he did spend the WHOLE afternoon there, remember? So he’s good to go now. So he gets into some other squirrely confrontations with Leatherdaddy aka Man who is once again excited he’s got somebody to shoot. A.J. Langer has been locked up in the attic now. But fool just zips up there because that’s what it says to do in the script I’m pretty sure. And it turns out Fool read the script before they started filming so he was good to go too. So he gets up in the attic and frees A.J. Langer and they start making their way out of the house. But then some things happen. Fool decides he’s gonna deal with these people once and for all. But then he ends up in the basement again. And there’s all those zombie people down there. But they’re just regular people who somehow forgot to talk and are super Vitamin D deficient. So they really kind of dig Fool and think he’s a righteous dude. So they help him and show him where Man and Woman are stockpiling cash and coins and also dynamite, as one does. And at this point we’re just waiting for this Looney Tunes episode to end. KABOOM! Man ends up in a pit thing that I forgot to tell you about but it’s not really important. He’s dead. Woman gets pulled apart by the zombie people I think. Or maybe it’s just implied. But in the explosion all the cash and coins start raining down from the sky. Oh and all the people from the ghetto showed up in solidarity because they are angry at Man and Woman for being slum lords. So it’s an empowering conclusion to the film. As it ends we see a bunch of albino looking people excitedly sneaking back off into real life, which will probably have no real consequences at all. Plus everyone is grabbing that sweet, sweet cash that’s floating around everywhere. It is truly a happy ending.

I will admit that I had some fun with this movie. Yes there’s a lot of parts of the plot that are either silly, stupid or many times both. But I think with a movie like this it’s just best if you don’t pull on the sweater despite the great many number of places to yoink. It unravels quickly though. There’s elements that are startling or off putting which I think are supposed to make it scary. Some of the chasing scenes are close calls and do add a fair amount of tension to the overall plot at times. It’s far from the worst movie I’ve seen this month but it’s also far from the best. It’s a decent middle of the pack kind of movie. Definitely not Craven’s best but I’m pretty sure it’s not his worst either. It just sort of exists. And sometimes in the world of horror movies, that’s all you can hope for. I feel like I do have to give this movie more of like a 4.5/10 than a solid 5. I know if we were using Math we’d still round up but it’s right at that cut off. It’s a movie I don’t regret buying because when I eventually watch it again, I’ll just have a lot more fun with it than pretend it will actually provide any scares. Plus it’s a shout factory release so I’m sure there’s plenty of goodies on my Blu Ray copy that will add some much needed layers to make the whole experience a little more satisfying. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice. In the end I don’t know that I’d feel full on comfortable recommending the movie because there are so many things that I’d put out in front of it that are more enjoyable. But if somebody was thinking about watching it I wouldn’t try and dissuade them necessarily, just maybe more prepare them for what they’re about to watch. That’s all. And I think on that note, we’ll call it a day. Until we meet again, I’ll catch you on the flip side.

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