Wes Craven makes horror films that aren’t scary. For years, they haven’t even been horrifying. This is not a criticism. After all, I’m one of Craven’s biggest fans. Ever since I was a child I’ve been whacking his movies into my player, longing for something to batter my senses like A Nightmare On Elm Street first did. The Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and Scream all succeeded (Krueger introduced me to the former teacher from Ohio), while Shocker, New Nightmare, Red Eye, and various moments from the Scream franchise have offered me enough rope to stop me from hanging myself after witnessing his atrocities.
That’s the problem with Craven. For every hip thriller there’s a crap Chiller. For every cult classic there’s an Invitation To Hell. And don’t get me started on Vampire In Brooklyn. Or Cursed. Luckily, Arrow Films has released one of his finer moments on Blu-ray for the very first time. The People Under The Stairs sums up Craven perfectly. He may chuck in a few shock-scare moments, but his films terrify like the Toxic Avenger. Which is why his Scream TV pilot is eagerly awaited. Teenage totty, horror comedy, Ghostface... it's the perfect platform for him. What's not lot to like?
Anyway, many years ago, the Cleveland Clobberer was fascinated by a macabre story that appeared in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook in 1978 about an apparently normal couple who had kept their children locked up in their homes all their lives. That story led to his, which follows three burglars, one a child called Fool, who break into a house occupied by a seemingly normal couple to steal some gold coins. We know what’s coming. This couple aint normal. In fact, as it turns out, they aint even a couple. And they have a massive dog. And stolen children living under the stairs. Bring. It. On.
Apparently bad girls burn in hell. Luckily, it’s Fool’s thirteenth birthday, and the house he’s robbing is all out of candles. Too old to get tit, too young to get ass, but armed with pearlers such as, “You thought he was white before, you should see that sucker now”, Fool spends most of the film being hounded by a hound. It’s not exactly frightening. But there is a cool bit when the dog is foiled for the umpteenth time and skids into the kitchen with more verve than Bode Miller. He’s a skier. And there’s another fun bit when the dog gets electrocuted. In fact, there are a lot of fun bits. Craven, handed a lifeline with a two film deal that included Shocker, looks like he’s having a blast, and we’re all the luckier for it.
But it’s time to clean house. Overlong, with a savage synthesizer screaming louder than our victims, The People Under The Stairs doesn’t have it all its own way. The dog should die sooner. Coming from a dog rescue volunteer, that’s some statement. The other villains, Man and Woman, are pantomime villains of the highest order. Man (Everett McGill) can’t shoot straight. Woman (Wendy Robie) reminds me of Sharon Osbourne. Fabulous. Roach (Sean Whalen) is less annoying the more times I watch him, and Ving Rhames should be in it a lot longer. Now I’m ruining it.
In all honesty, nothing I say could crush Craven’s flick. There’s rarely a dull moment. Craven may not be able to shock us like he did in his early days, but his set-pieces are just as inventive as they have always been. Its biggest problem on release was expectation. People wanted to be scared. But, as other directors have proven, horror and comedy stalk side by side. Freddy and Jason do not. There’s even a serious message trying to get out. Freddy and Jason do not. And maybe another one. I digress. Chuck in some people under the stairs and what you have is a boisterous beast more fun than a punch to the balls.
Special Features for the Blu-ray release include an audio commentary with star Brandon Quentin Adams, and four special features. Fear, Freud and Class Warfare sees Craven discussing the timely terrors of his movie and is the stand out, while Behind Closed Doors (A.J. Langer reminiscing), Silent But Deadly (Sean Whalen doing likewise), and Underneath the Floorboards (Jeffrey Reddick, creator of The Final Destination series, sticking his nose in to talk about the lasting impact the film has had) are more filler than killer.
He’s one of the leading horror film-makers of the past thirty years, and The People Under The Stairs sums up his career in its entirety. Few moments will shock, more will surprise, most will entertain. Craven may not scare the life out of you, and a large chunk of his films are harrowing for all the wrong reasons, but when he gets it right, he’s up there with Raimi and Jackson. Shocker. DW