Wes Craven is one of the true masters of horror and has appealed to multiple generations. My Craven Era was the meta-one in which Craven basically reinvented popular horror by taking the tropes and making them self aware in his film Scream (though he actually had done this a few years before Scream with Wes Craven's New Nightmare).
The People Under the Stairs might be the first attempt at meta-satire and, like many rough drafts, just doesn't quite fit. His next opportunities would fair much better.
The People Under the Stairs functions as part Haunted House, part macabre horror flick while sprinkling in a 'take back the ghetto' theme that was also popular in 1993's black-centric sci-fi comedy The Meteor Man.
Oddly, 1991 also was the year Boyz N the Hood came out, reflecting the type of ghetto culture also revealed in 1988's Colors as a thing to avoid; a lifestyle and ideology of violence, abuse, and revenge. So it is kind of weird that Craven takes White Flight and essentially makes a near slapstick gore fest about it.
In the main story, a Man and a Woman (played by Twin Peaks husband/wife team Everett McGill and Wendie Robie), who happen to be white and own a number of properties, including the 'ghetto', as it is simply known, decided to make the contracts extremely difficult for tenants by tripling the monthly fee if rent is late. Naturally, since the ghetto is full of hoods and crack addicts, and, for the purposes of the plot, The Saint like burglars, everyone is out on the street.
Young Poindexter, our film's hero, decides to join Ving Rhames on a robbery of the landlord's home. Part of it is to piss Man and Woman off but another aspect of it is because there seems to be some legendary gold hidden in the house.
Poindexter and Rhames soon find out that the house is really a super secure panic house with killer dogs and ... well ... people under the stairs!
This is an intriguing, if not entirely goofy premise and Craven uses his brilliant technical skills in conjunction with cinematographer Sandi Sissel in making the first half hour or so somewhat claustrophobic and menacing. We are introduced to our hero by seeing his sister pray, using a mixture of paganism and voodoo, over a cancer stricken mother. The apartment, in which Poindexter and crew will be evicted from in roughly 24-27 hours, is surrounded by druggies, hookers, and beggars.
We counter this with an introduction to Man and Woman and their daughter Alice, who is basically told to be seen and not heard by Woman. Man is eating what looks like the remnants of a rib cage of some sort, spitting out buckshot as he comes across it. We know that there really are no winners here in this universe: poor and hungry, or rich and disgusting.
Luckily, we do side with Poindexter as we discover Man and Woman are very, very, VERY strange people who think their neighborhood is being infested with the wrong type of people. Craven, who wrote the script, doesn't quite come out and make it a white vs. black discussion, but it is quite clear what Woman means when she says its the 'wrong type of people'.
So what does this all have to do with people under stairs? Well, apparently Man has been trying to find the perfect mate for his daughter and whenever he meets one he plans on keeping them. Sadly, they all fail him and he basically destroys them and keeps them in an elaborate, booby-trapped basement where they have become nothing but restless, angry, voiceless zombies.
Oddly, the film really isn't about The People Under the Stairs at all but about Poindexter's perils as he tries to escape and rescue the girl. It's just that, along the way, we happen to see Man chasing people around in full gimp-latex sex wear while rabid dogs are dispatched with simple jabs and counters. Throw in a sympathetic former boyfriend with no tongue and you get this strange little movie.
Craven does a great job making you feel the pressure of trying to get out of a house that is impenetrable on all sides and, at times, there is a DEEEEEEEP HURTING aspect to it all where you start to feel a bit worn out by the continuously clever ways in which Poindexter can't escape.
Also brilliant is the set design. Not only is there a house but there is also the aforementioned 'under the stairs' lair, which is quite creepy, but also a complex network of pathways and escape routes all through the house for the daughter Alice and her friend, the tongueless Roach. It is all put together so well on a visual basis, it's just a shame the story kind of goes everywhere.
I would have preferred the film stay focused on a theme. Man and Woman are so over-the-top crazy (with some special script twists that make their relationship even weirder) that when Craven plays it straight, it just comes off as weird. And when Craven decides to go all Sam Raimi and get slapstick with the violence in the middle, it makes you forget that there was potential for straight up horror as well.
It's just too much packed into one film and it is about 15 minutes too long ... but it is never NOT interesting. And, in the end, when you want to be entertained, you can't ask for more.
EXTRA: For a film with an all-over-the-place script, Craven nails Ving Rhames' one liners. Crude and vulgar, sure, but awesome all the same.