Wes Craven had a really weird 1990s. Following his all out horror 1980s with A Nightmare On Elm Street, Deadly Friend, The Serpent and the Rainbow and Shocker, he would turn to material decidedly more off kilter in the decade that followed. Craven’s 90s would include the likes of the Eddie Murphy gore comedy Vampire In Brooklyn, the almost too meta New Nightmare, the hugely popular Scream, its sequel Scream 2 and the Meryl Streep drama Music of the Heart. But Wes would start the decade with what is perhaps his most underrated and truly bizarre work, 1991’s The People Under the Stairs.
The People Under the Stairs was marketed as a horror movie by Universal, likely because they had no idea how else to sell it to viewers. It starts out as a sort of urban gold hunting story ala Walter Hill’s wonderful Trespass which would release the following year, but quickly becomes something more sinister and flat out wacky. The central character is a kid named Fool (and he is looking for gold, get it?) in a creepy neighborhood house owned by characters only billed as Man and Woman (played by Twin Peaks regulars Everett McGill and Wendy Robie), who have some fucked up lineage and keep a bunch of maimed spawn in their basement. Except for the innocent, virginal girl who lives in some high up room ala Rapunzel and the one named Roach who runs freely in the walls. But you best believe that Man will put on his bondage gear jumpsuit and grab his twelve gauge to get rid of that menace. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
This one is really all over the place and may be a bit too uneven to be as embraced by many as it should. The central character is a kid and it at times feels like a kids movie, albeit one with dark sexual undertones and cannibalism. It’s sort of in line with something like Shrunken Heads in that way, perhaps most likely to appeal to an audience it is restricted to and available to an audience that won’t know what to do with it. It doesn’t really work as a horror film, but as a piece of dark comedy it truly excels. It feels kinda like some John Waters version of the Klaus Kinski starring Crawlspace from 1985, only with more bondage gear and slingshots. It may not be for everyone but you’ll be hard pressed to find genre cinema more inspired and strange than this, especially from a major studio and director. It may not be Craven’s most revered work of the decade, but it’s easily his most unique.
Scream Factory have brought this to Blu-ray for the third time, Universal released a disc in the US previously and Arrow in the UK, and the results are what we’d expect at this point. This looks pretty much identical to the Universal disc (I haven’t seen the Arrow, but from what I’ve read, it uses the same source) which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. The transfer is solid and gets the job done with dark blacks (this is pretty much all indoors) and an overall clean presentation. Still, this could most definitely look better than it does and it’s a shame that SF didn’t make a new transfer for something touted as a Collector’s Edition. Audio includes DTS HD 5.1 and 2.0. The former is new to this release and it sounds good but I’ll always advocate for, and am happy with the inclusion of the original 2.0 track. No issues to report with the audio presentation here, fans will be very happy.
What SF do offer up here and makes the release earn its Collector’s Edition tag is a heavy supplement package, especially considering that the previous Universal release was bare bones. We start with two audio commentary tracks, the first of which features Wes Craven and is the best extra in the set. Craven is very talkative and clearly has a lot of love for the film. A lot of information is provided but not at the expense of anecdotes and conversation. It’s a fun, informative track that makes the disc well worth the cost of upgrading for fans. Next up is a commentary with a few of the cast members, but it’s a real mess. It’s hard to tell who is talking and it’s clear that they aren’t all on the same page when it comes to facts or even what they’re watching. Not sure what went wrong here, maybe having someone moderate would have helped, but it’s a hard listen and isn’t very rewarding. Especially not compared to the Craven track. After the commentaries, we get some new interviews with Wendy Robie, the KNB Effects guys, DP Sandi Sisse, and composer Don Peake. All are well worth watching and add up to about an hour of content. After that, there’s some brief vintage behind the scenes material, storyboards and trailers. All in all, a great package from SF.
The People Under the Stairs will never garner the attention that the most well known Craven films have and it doesn’t really need to. This is a strange, almost unclassifiable piece of genre cinema that deserves to be championed despite its shortcomings and eccentricities. Scream Factory have put together a comprehensive package for fans with an unfortunately previously used, though still solid, transfer. Absolutely worth the upgrade for those with the Universal disc or fans of the film or Craven in general. Everyone else would do well to see this one prior to picking it up. It’s a weird one!