Combustible Celluloid
Stream it:
Download at i-tunes iTunes
Own it:
With: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A. J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, Sean Whalen, Jeremy Roberts, Conni Marie Brazelton, Joshua Cox, John Hostetter, John Mahon, Yan Birch
Written by: Wes Craven
Directed by: Wes Craven
MPAA Rating: R for terror/violence
Running Time: 102
Date: 11/01/1991

The People Under the Stairs (1991)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fool Proof

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs strikes me as a remarkably forward-thinking movie for its time, with Black heroes and white villains, even though Ving Rhames is still stuck in the role of a thief. Young Brandon Quintin Adams stars as "Fool," named after the Tarot card. He lives with his ailing mother and his older sister (Kelly Jo Minter). He learns from his sister's boyfriend Leroy (Rhames), that they are to be evicted unless they can come up with triple the rent in one day. Fortunately, Leroy has a plan.

The landlords, a creepy brother-sister pair who call each other "Mommy" and "Daddy" -- and played by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, who were the Hurleys on TV's Twin Peaks -- apparently have somewhere on their property a collection of gold coins. So Leroy, his associate Spenser (Jeremy Roberts), and Fool attempt to break in to their heavily-protected mansion to find the coins. They enounter unexpected, scary things, but Fool's intrepid good nature eventually turns the movie into less of a scare-fest than a rescue story.

Almost the entire story takes place within the house, and Craven's expert use of space is put to good use. The characters are constantly amusing, from Fool's comic asides, reacting to the extreme weirdness he's experiencing, to Mommy and Daddy's ultra-bizarre, volatile actions. (Daddy runs around the house firing a shotgun into the walls.) But the takeaway is the movie's sincere attempt to identify with the Black struggle. Even though it has no supernatural elements, and it's not one of Craven's scariest films, it's one of his most satisfying. The great Bill Cobb appears briefly as Fool's helpful grandfather.

Movies Unlimtied