It had been over twenty-five years since I watched THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991). I remembered enjoying it immensely, but barely recalled anything at all. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up. It definitely screams 90s, but in the best way!
You have to love a kid who gets his nickname from a tarot card. Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) has the weight of the world on his shoulders as his mom is sick, his sister Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) has her own children and the whole family is about to be evicted from their rundown apartment.
Fool ends up joining adults Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) in a mission to rob the landlord’s house of gold coins. Now, Leroy and Spenser were assholes for bringing Fool along. They should have done the job themselves and left the child home. Fool doesn’t need to be involved in all this nonsense.
Admittedly, Leroy and Fool were supposed to wait in the car while Spenser went into the house and grabbed some gold coins. When Spenser doesn’t come back, they go inside to make sure he didn’t take off with the goods. Still, Leroy could have let Fool go back home instead of bringing him into the insane house. Fuck Leroy! He sucks and I hate him.
All hell breaks loose, when Leroy is attacked by a dog and Fool gets separated. That is where he first encounters the people under the stairs, who are really just victimized children themselves. The owners took in young boys to be their son, but when they talked back or did anything at all that disappointed, the kids were chucked in the basement, beaten and starved.
Thankfully, Alice (A.J Langer), the young daughter of the crazy owners, opens the door where he can run to safety. Alice is cool. She’s never been outside, is abused by her psycho folks and is scared to death, but she still feeds the captives in the basement and has a conscience.
One captive in particular, Roach (Sean Whalen) is a great dude. He risks his own life to help Fool and Alice. I feel bad for Roach. I wanted to adopt him and buy him a Shetland pony, because kids love ponies and Shetland ones are the cutest!
Now, the real monsters in the film are nutjob Mommy (Wendy Robie) and Daddy (Everett McGill). This movie proves that if you ever run into a duo that appeared in TWIN PEAKS, get the fuck away from them! Those bitches are psycho!
Mommy and Daddy’s hobbies include being racist jackoffs, beating and burning their daughter, torturing the people under the stairs and being bad pet owners. I hate those motherfuckers. They also have a horrible taste in clothes, except the gimp costume. A wardrobe isn’t a wardrobe without a gimp costume. Nic Cage and 8MM (1999) taught me that.
In the end, Fool and Alice team up to escape the house of horrors with gold coins in hand.
Overall, this film was far scarier than I remembered. Going in, I thought it was going to be tame, and maybe by early 90s standards it was, but not anymore. It’s got more bite than modern horror. Sure, it’s not as in your face as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) or HELLRAISER (1987), but it definitely packs a harder punch than movies like WISH UPON (2017), YOU’RE NEXT (2011) or TRUTH OR DARE (2018).
The closest I can compare it to in modern terms is the horror comedy hybrid VILLAINS (2019). The two have the same tone, feel and much of the same storyline. THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is a superior movie, but the two would make a killer double-feature.
In the end, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS does exactly right what films like THE TURNING (2020) and GRETEL AND HANSEL (2020) do wrong. It is action packed, it’s not afraid to be campy, the characters are interesting and have depth and there are genuinely frightening moments. Most of all the children protagonists are strong, smart and determined, but they are still kids. They’re not overly-intellectual or speak in philosophical soliloquies. They act like normal children who are in a nutso situation, and that is the key in making them sympathetic and showing their vulnerability. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Rest in Peace, Wes Craven. The horror world misses you.