THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS **** USA 1991 105 mins
One of Wes Craven’s most underrated movies, in which sensitive adolescent Brandon Adams strives to save his dying mother and his family’s imminent eviction by breaking into the elaborately rigged old-dark-house of their warped landlord. All the rumours of the depravity within said house turns out to be true: disturbed siblings Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie) have spent their lives striving to build their own Nuclear family from abducted teenagers. An imaginative and cynical satire of America’s first Bush era, this vivid indictment of gun-happy white Republicans is rich with familiar Craven themes, from the grim undercurrents of domestic abuse through to the study of two families on opposite ends of the class spectrum (both, as in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, equally capable of savagery). Reteamed from TWIN PEAKS, McGill (gimp-suited and clumsy) and Robie play it, respectively, broadly nutty and quietly disturbing as the couple, while Craven niftily combines a Hansel and Gretel-inspired fairy tale ambience with ELM STREET-like domestic battlegrounds and unsubtle political commentary. Craven pulls off the tonal shifts between cannibalism, child abuse and knockabout comic brutality with skill, and it has a happy ending of the kind that was rare in the director’s work up to that point, with two triumphant uprisings and a conveniently timed explosion.
Review by Steven West