The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Wes Craven was inspired by a news story from the late 1970s, in which two burglars broke into a Los Angeles household, leading the police to discover two African-American children who had been locked away by their parents. There was little studio interference on this $6 million dollar film, which ended up being a modest success.

Craven would say that this movie was closer to The Hills Have Eyes than any film he’d done in a while, telling Fangoria that it was “a raw film with no dreams in it whatsoever. It’s an extraordinary, real situation involving an awful family that shouldn’t exist, but unfortunately, often does.” I mean, that’s kind of poetic, huh?

Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Adams, The Mighty Ducks and The Sandlot) and his family are about to be evicted by their landlords, known as Mommy and Daddy Robeson. They’re played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, who were cast after they played married couple “Big” Ed and Nadine Hurley in Twin Peaks.

Meanwhile, Fool, Leroy (Ving Rhames) and Spencer decide to break in to the Robeson’s home. Bad idea — they find a dead body and an entire room full of pale children that have been locked up inside a dungeon. When they return to the house, the Robesons end up being home and Daddy kills Leroy.

On the run, Fool meets their daughter Alice (A.J. Langer, My So-Called Life), who tells him that the “people under the stairs” are kids who broke Mommy and Daddy’s rules of see no, hear no and speak no evil. Now, they’ve become cannibals and only Alice has escaped the horrible punishments of her parents, punishments like getting your tongue cut out like Roach.

Soon, Alice and Fool are on the run with Prince the dog chasing after them. The gold they find enables his family to escape the ghetto while doing the right thing — exposing the Robesons for the monsters they are.

That’s because Mommy and Daddy are really brother and sister, inbred killers from a long and gnarled family tree that started by running a funeral home before they went into real estate. Now, they must pay and the very house must be destroyed. 

Bill Cobbs, who played Grandpa, was also Dr. Emory Erickson, inventor of the Transporter, on Star Trek: Enterprise. Plus, Kelly Jo Minter (Miracle MileThe Lost BoysPopcorn and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) shows up, as does John Hostetter, who is Tuck in Knightriders and was the voice of Bazooka on the G.I. Joe cartoon.

Craven brings back the familiar trope of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” in this film, not just a nod to the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, but a prayer that was also spoken in The Last House on the Left and the title of another Craven film, My Soul to Take.

I usually am not a fan of Craven as much as others, but this is probably one of his best films. It’s devoted to scares and fun, which is really what a night at a horror movie film should be all about.

You can get this movie from Shout! Factory.

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