Friday, 8 November 2013

Blu-Ray Review: The People Under The Stairs

Some 22 years after its big screen debut, Wes Craven's The People Under The Stairs is, sadly, more relevant than ever. Here, child abuse and the plight of the disenfranchised come under the spotlight as class warfare erupts behind the locked doors and windows of what can only be described as a house of horrors.
Fool (aka Poindexter) played by Brandon Adams,is part of a struggling American family who face eviction from their apartment by an unscrupulous landlord in search of a return on his investment. Fool's mother is battling cancer and can't afford the treatment she so desperately needs, so her son becomes part of a plan to steal a collection of gold coins from the home of the aforementioned owner of the block. Led by family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames), Fool is accompanied by a third party, and the plan is to get in and straight out with the cash. Unfortunately for them, the occupants turn out to be an insane brother and sister act who keep their 'daughter' a permanent prisoner, together with an assortment of workmen and delivery guys who had seen and heard too much during their business trips to the house. Soon, Leroy and his accomplice meet a grisly end, leaving Fool to face the twin peaks of terror (Everett McGill, Wendy Robie) wo are hell bent on adding him to their list of casualties. Aided by Alice (A.J. Lang)and Roach (Sean Whalen)a prisoner in the walls,Fool fights to stay alive, and find the gold coins that will be the answer to his family's prayers.
The People Under The Stairs really is a multi-layered gem, and I really enjoyed my first view of this film since its theatrical screenings back in 1991.Originally, I'd pegged it as mid-tier Craven, but now feel it belongs to his top-drawer entries. Be very sure this is a gruesome, often hard-hitting affair mixing the harrowing subject of child abuse with the impoverished state of America's underclass, as Craven keeps his foot on the accelerator to inflict a steady stream of physical and verbal abuse on the unwilling occupants of the house. Wendy Robie in particular is a real standout here as the savage, sexually frustrated woman who also figures in several of the film's frankly hilarious moments; welcome comic relief that appears and re-appears before events resume their bleak, unforgiving tone: watch out for the scene when Fool discovers Roach had his tongue cut out, mirroring the down and out class of society who also have no voice. While McGill, Roach and Fool play their cat-and-mouse game, the eerie fortress becomes yet another character in the film, with secret passages and half-lit basements bearing all the trappings of quality genre fare. It's a wild ride indeed, and thoroughly deserving of a Blu-ray release from one of our most enterprising companies.

Arrow Video's Blu-ray has robust colours and plenty of detail, even in dimly lit scenes which benefit hugely from a HD picture. There are several instances of edge enhancement, but these can be attributed to the fact that Universal supplied the HD master and no blame for these isolated glitches can be laid at Arrow's door. On the extras front, the excellent High Rising Productions (Calum Waddell, Naomi Holwill)have worked hard on a quartet of featurettes:

Fear, Freud And Class Warfare
This features Wes Craven talking about his film, revealing the idea came to him from a newspaper report concerning a couple who kept two children locked in their house. Craven also chats about the challenges of working with children, and declares 'People' to be one of his most unfettered personal works.

Behind Closed Doors
A 13 minute interview with A.J. Lang who recalls the connection she made with Craven, and also Wendy Robie who remains a close friend.

Silent But Deadly
A 14 minute interview with Sean Whalen who recalls what a great time he had playing the little rebel in the house, and the experiences of what was his screen debut.

Underneath The Floorboards
A 9 minute piece featuring Jeffrey Riddick, who chats about the impact of Craven's film and declares Wendy Robie to be his favourite character.

Fans of Brandon Adams' performance will be delighted by the inclusion of a commentary track, which is beautifully moderated by Calum Waddell. Adams proved extremely difficult to track down, but his memories of working with Craven and McGill(a personal hero, even at Adams' tender age) amongst others made the effort worthwhile.
The People Under The Stairs is out now on, and represents a good solid addition to Arrow's increasingly impressive catalogue.

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