For some reason, I've always mingle the titles of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and The People Under the Stairs. I don't know why this is. The former, which I've seen several times over the past two decades, is a grim and nasty low-fi shocker. The latter, which I saw for the first time this weekend, is a bizarre marriage child's adventure flick, dark fantasy film, and grindhouse brutality. Think Goonies meets The Girl Next Door with a dash of family-style Chainsaw Massacre thrown in, if you wrap your noggin around that mess of mashed-up elements. Two less similar films would be hard to find.
The plot of People involves a young boy known as Fool who joins ghetto-Fagin Leroy (played by Ving Rhames, the flick's only "star" in one of his occasional pre-Pulp Fiction roles) to rob the house of the cruel landlords who are threatening to toss Fool's family – completely with deathly ill mother – out onto the street. The target of the robbery is the gold coins the landlords supposedly keep in their home.
The robbery, as these things so often do, goes all pear-shaped on our heroes when they find that the intended victims of their larcenous ways are, in fact, a crazy pair of violent nut cases who count among their many hobbies the preservation of Victorian furniture, the firing of large caliber weapons, the feeding of human flesh to their killer dog, and the keeping of a small tribe of cannibalistic teens locked in their basement.
Oh, they also have a waif of a young girl pulling a solo Flowers in the Attic bit in one of the upstairs bedrooms and a teenage boy living behind the walls and in the crawl spaces of the house.
Fool survives his original encounter and returns home with some of the loot; but he made a promise to return and free the young girl. Will Fool survive the final showdown? Duh Duh Dum!
I think that covers it.
People Under the Stairs is a very uneven flick. I give it credit for trying to pull together so many disparate elements and, remarkably, it manages to fuse quite a bit of its curious material into a lightly involving bit of cinema. There is something genuinely exciting about the "treasure hunt" plot and the surreal fairy-tale trappings. It is hard not to root for Fool as the stakes mount and the situations he faces get weirder and weirder.
Unfortunately, the patchwork approach is also the film's greatest weakness. Deft directors can blend shocks and laughs, but Wes Craven occasionally dips into that sort of inky dark behavior that isn't so much shocking and disturbingly dispiriting. For example, for all the horror unleashed by the creepy landlords, they are mostly absurd characters who strike the viewer as vaguely comical in their excesses. What, then, are viewers supposed to feel when they get treated to a scene in which the female landlord forces her girl captive to take a bath in steaming hot water in order to wash away the dirt touching an African American boy has left on her? Suddenly we've gone from a cartoonish evil to a genuine sliver of nightmare. And the film just as suddenly wants to turn back into a cartoon and carry on as if nothing happened. It leaves a bit of a bad taste.
The People Under the Stairs is a mostly entertaining flick whose spastic exuberance sometimes gets the best of itself. Its strange combination of children's adventure and adult horror brings to mind a sort of American, suburban, silly answer to del Toro's more accomplished, more serious dark fantasies. Using the fan-favorite Concepts from Differential Geometry Movie Rating System, I'm giving People a fair Pullback rating. This weird little flick will deliver the goods provided you don't expect a hardcore horror film or demand to much of its modest fantasy plot.