Whatcha Craven?: The People Under the Stairs (1991)

Wes Craven loves to take the innocents that exist in this world, like Nancy in Nightmare, Sidney in Scream, and the Carter family in The Hills Have Eyes, and throw them into a situation well beyond the normal parameters of their lives. With his 1991 film The People Under the Stairs, Wes went younger with his protagonist than he ever had before. It’s a dangerous road to go down working with a child actor, and it could be what makes or breaks your film. Sometimes they can draw you in, making you feel like you did when you were their age, but there’s also the chance they won’t be up to the task presented to them.

The People Under the Stairs follows Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Quentin Adams), a 13 year old boy who shares an apartment in the ghetto with his sister, her children, and their mother who is sick with cancer. When they miss their rent and are about to be evicted, “Fool” is desperate to find a way to help. So when family friend Leroy (Ving Rhames) approaches him with a plan to rob a cache of gold from their landlords, “Fool” reluctantly agrees. When they break in, they soon find themselves trapped in the house, and the landlords turn out to be creepy, cannibalistic kidnappers. “Fool” must find a way to escape with the money and their abused daughter before he becomes their prisoner as well.

The young man who plays “Fool” Williams is perhaps the highlight of the film. This is a child actor who was quite up to the task before him, but sadly, the task itself was a deeply flawed one. Brandon Quentin Adams had quite a pedigree coming into this film. After all, he got his start as Zeke “Baby Bad” in Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. From there he took roles in films such as The Mighty Ducks and The Sandlot, and as of late he has provided the voice of Raijin in the Kingdom Hearts video games. Personally, I thought Adams was very strong in The People Under the Stairs, and his reactions all mirror those that a 13 year old boy might have when put in the same situation.

The problem is that the situation itself has quite a bit of issues. Once trapped in the house he is confronted by stairs that turn into slides, secret passages, an unstoppable Rottweiler, and the “Mom” and “Dad” who seem like crazier versions of Baby Jane and Bob from the Church of the Sub-Genius. The film starts to become Home Alone in reverse. Instead of the kid fending off the bad robbers, we have the kid robbing the place and fending off the baddies that are after him. As the film goes on it devolves more and more into slapstick type violence which is punctuated by a few shots of gore. Without the gore, and 2 uses of the F-word, then I would say this film was geared toward kids around the main character’s age. I’m sure if I had seen this when I was 12 or 13 I would have loved it, but as an adult, I found it did not deliver on the tension necessary to make the situation dire or enough laughs for me to consider this a dark comedy.

That’s not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable film to watch. I found it quite entertaining mostly due to the performances of Adams and his costars. Ving Rhames provides a small but solid part, but as I’ve said before about him (in my review of Entrapment), I find he generally plays the same character in every film with this being no exception. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are perfectly creepy as the “Mom” and “Dad” characters, and fans of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks will recognize them as Big Ed and Nadine Hurley. Essentially they play broader versions of the creeps that they portrayed in Lynch’s series, but by the time McGill’s “Dad” is dressed like the gimp while chasing the boy around the house, he loses any real ability to be scary. Instead the two antagonists devolve over the film to become cartoonish caricatures, and it’s too bad. If the film had taken a darker bent then the two of them would have made excellent baddies.

There are a couple of parts of the film that I did really like. Seventeen year old A.J. Langer may have been way too old to be playing “Mom” and “Dad”’s captive 12 year old daughter Alice, but along with Brandon Quentin Adams she turned in a fine performance. On an interesting side note, Langer grew up and married a British Lord which is a hell of a long way from her supporting role in Craven’s flick.

The other thing I really liked in the film were all the scenes featuring the titular People, a group of kidnapped boys kept in the basement. With one exception, you don’t get a good look at any of them until the end of the film, and it makes them a eerie presence throughout. The one you do get to meet, Roach, is played by Sean Whalen, and his is probably the most memorable character in the film. His tongue having been cut out by “Mom” and “Dad” he has escaped into the walls where he has developed a friendship with Alice. I really liked the exuberant insanity he brought to the screen like he was a maniacal member of Peter Pan’s lost boys. Whalen is still at work today and has appeared in Charlie’s Angels (2000), The Hebrew Hammer (2003), and Employee of the Month (2006).

The People Under the Stairs does feature some really well constructed shots, and it is some of the best film making that Craven has displayed since the original Nightmare. Cinematographer Sandi Sissel had a background in documentary film, and I think it really shows. The opening images of “Fool”’s home are strikingly filmed, and the adventures he has in the walls of the house look great. I love the way the light is captured coming through cracks, and sometimes bullet holes, in the walls. Again, I have to go back to my wish that the film had been given a darker tone. I don’t think a thing would have had to be done to the camera work as it is noticeably more moody than the tone of the film.

I don’t have that much else to say about the film except that is was quite a disappointment. This is one some friends of mine had hyped up as being very good, but I was just let down. It really seemed like Craven wanted to make a kids horror film, but he made it for a mature audience. While I am no big fan of remakes, I would love to see this one redone with more emphasis on the darker side of the story.

Bugg Rating


  1. 2? Really? That sucks that you didn't get more enjoyment out of it. I saw PUTS in theaters and it will forever be my favorite of Wes Craven's films. I loved the mixed tones, the slapstick violence and everything else about it. It is, in my opinion, Craven's most interesting and unique film. I have the poster framed and hanging on the wall in my living room.

  2. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 18, 2009 at 3:32 PM

    Great picture of a.j. langer, she was such a gorgeous little darlin` back in `91.

  3. I would agree that overall this flick is really no great shakes, but I DO quite enjoy the parts with 'Daddy' in his gimp outfit and blasting the holy hell outta his own house with a shotgun.

  4. I knew this one might bring down fire on me a bit, and it looks like I got it. First off let me thank all three of you for taking time to read the post.

    Naked Eskimo, to me 2 is not that bad, it's just somewhat below average. I really wanted the film to have a consistent tone and become either a horror film or a dark comedy. To me, it fell short on both fronts.

    Next week, I'm covering Shocker which many people think is crapola and I think is pretty fun, but thats the great thing about film there are tons and we can all have our opinion.

    That being said, J. Astro, thanks for the comment as well, but as I said in my post by the time the gimp suit came out, I just couldn't follow what this movie wanted to be.

    Snob, thanks as always for your valuable insight.

    Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment!

  5. I saw this movie when it first came out. I really enjoyed it back then. I haven't seen it since. Not sure what I would think of it now.

  6. The crazy mother reminded me of my mom. ::shudder::

  7. I remember seeing this in the theatre when it came out...the previews had looked so creepy and I was really excited to be seeing a horror movie in the theatre.

    Unfortunately, the movie started and I was totally bored.


  8. This is one that really seems to split people down the middle. It's interesting to see what films do that. Thanks for all the great comments Keith, Scholar, and Billy.

  9. This is one of the rare horror films I actual saw at the local multiplex and I had a good time with it. It seemed like the entire audience did.

    The problem is that it did lack that certain... something that makes you want to see something again, that certain something that makes a story of any kind stick with you.

    Maybe that's why the film didn't generate much of a long term following.

    That said, I'm not sure what the film was truly missing, what spice was left out of the sauce if you will.. More comedy? More brutality? An appearnce by Jim Varney?

  10. the sneering (homo-phobic) snobJuly 21, 2009 at 5:08 PM

    Actually i was so entranced by that beautiful picture of a.j. langer that i forgot to mention that wendy robie wasn`t a bad looking bird in this movie either, although she was 37 at the time of filming (i would have loved to have seen her when she was 18 i bet she was a right tasty little bird).

  11. Hello Mr. Bugg!

    I was pretty young when I saw this, and I really liked it (mostly because of the kid, and because of the tongueless dude) - but I went in with no expectations, and with no idea what it was about.

    A shame you didn't dig it - but I have had many disappointments recently due to watching childhood favourites as an adult. I think some things are best left in the memory.

  12. I too saw this in the theater and remember loving it. It had a kid hero that you actually cared about and none of that pesky female nudity that used to embarrass my little girl senses. I haven't rewatched it in some time, but I suppose (that was said in a reluctant font) that it may have had some trouble finding the right note for its audience. It's going on the queue!

    Oh! And I'm pretty sure that Roach had a later appearance as the "Aaron Burr" enthusiast in one of the first memorable Got Milk? ads.

  13. The debate over The People Under the Stairs rages on. Seeing all the positive comments for the film makes me think that I might want to try this one again some other time.

    And of course thanks for the most recent comments from G-GG and Emily As soon as I read that he was the "Aaron Burr" fellow, I could see it in my head. Spot on little nugget there and many thanks for it!


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