‘You kids will be the death of me… the death of me…’
The Goonies is a great film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a great film. Does this mean I want them combined into some grotesque hybrid of the two? Well, kinda. But only for the sake of curiosity. Throw master director Wes Craven into the mix and you have my attention…
Fool (Brandon Adams) has a lot on his plate. His mum is terminally ill, his family are on the verge of being evicted and some guy named Leroy (Ving Rhames) wont leave him the hell alone. In a decision that can only be described as ‘dubious’, Fool endeavours to break into the local spooky house to steal some gold coins he has heard about. The house itself is full of secret passageways, booby traps and puzzles (Oh! Like The Goonies!), but it is also full of cannibalistic incestuous ghouls (Oh… like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). And now, you see what I was babbling about earlier.
Wes Craven’s directorial career can broadly be split into three phases. His early exploitation shockers The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes makes up the first phase, the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise makes up the second, and finally, the Scream franchise was Craven’s third and final act. But in between those phases there are a number of weird, one off horror films that plug the gaps. The People Under the Stairs came out seven years after Nightmare and five years before Scream, during a period in which Craven released a whole bunch of films that have dropped out of the public consciousnesses now (if they were ever there to begin with). Even in horror circles, movies like Deadly Friend, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker are mostly forgotten about now, and it was during this era that The People Under the Stairs dropped. And it is a weird little movie.
As alluded to earlier, the tone of this movie is all wrong. Is it a horror film? Is it an adventure? Is it a comedy? In the end, this film tries to be all of these things without ever really settling in one category. It is funny in places, and it is horrifying in others, but taken together, these moments jar and clang in a way that is disorientating for the viewer.
The eclectic cast try their best, with Rhames compelling as ever and Wendy Robie throwing everything into her role as the evil head of the household, but in the end, this film is just too weird and too messy to really work. That being said, horror fans will find a lot to enjoy here, as well fans of 80s and 90s cinema generally. There is absolutely no way a film like this could ever be made today, and this is sad in many respects.
The People Under the Stairs is a lot of fun, and there are some great moments hidden in the more pedestrian scenes, but I can also see why it has been largely forgotten.