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Cinema Recall Podcast Terror Tuesday: ‘The People Under The Stairs’ (1991)

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: The People Under The Stairs was written and directed by Wes Craven and it features Ving Rhames, Brandon Quentin AdamsEverett McGill and Wendy Robie. It was released right after Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and before Craven’s A New Nightmare. Most of Mr. Craven’s movies after A Nightmare on Elm Street were never well-received with movies like Deadly Friend and Shocker.

People Under The Stairs is not your average horror flick. While the movie itself does have its shares of frights and a few scares, this could have easily been marketed as a dark children’s fable, a very dark one at that, but still a tale for children all the same. Let me explain.

Fool (Adams) is a poor kid who is about to be evicted from his apartment by some real nasty landlords. One of the tenants named Leroy (Rhames) comes up with a plan to break into the landlord’s home and steal the money that is hidden in the basement. When they get inside, they soon discover that the landlords are a viciously deranged couple (played creepily brilliant by McGill and Robie) who will do anything to make sure they don’t leave. Fool ends up discovering their young daughter Alice (A.J. Langer), who does her best to help him escape her evil parent’s clutches.

The actual people under the stairs are just the ones the couple caught and did not release. Of course they are cannibalistic creatures, but in no way should they be considered to be monsters. For starters they don’t eat kids, and two, the only humans I have seen them chow down on were really bad people. They are (in my mind) the Boo Radley persona from To Kill a Mockingbird, something that is made to look all scary, when viewed from a distance, but when seen up close. Okay, so they are still scary looking, but they are actually nice people who do end up helping these kids, so that’s not bad, right? The evil parents are just hyper-realistic versions of the ones you would find in most fairy tales. They are the wicked stepmother from Cinderella or Jafar from Aladdin but taken to very extreme measures. Yes, they are off-the-wall and sometimes comical; “Burn in Hell” is said so much by them. I’m surprised it wasn’t written on the floor mat near the front steps. If they did tone down the language and some of the gore, this could have easily been a PG-13 rated flick.  But then again if it was, no one would see it.

The movie did do well at the box office when it was released and it has a good enough ratings from critics that I wouldn’t say it was forgotten about. But I don’t really see many people talking about it much. Now that I explained it to be more of a kids fable, maybe now you can watch this Wes Craven movie in a whole new light. After this Craven made one more dud with Vampire in Brooklyn.  After that would be the game changer Scream.

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