“The People Under The Stairs” (1991)

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By Jerome Reuter

Last year, so many of us were shocked at the passing of Wes Craven. For so long this man weaved visions of horror into our minds, and made us all scared of the dark. Within hours of his passing, many people shared their memories of his filmography. From The Last House On The Left, to A Nightmare On Elm Street, it seemed the whole world took a brief moment to reminisce. However, I was surprised so many people brought up Scream, which I feel is one of the low points of his career. As we all looked back on this mans life, there was one film that very few people were discussing, The People Under The Stairs, released in 1991.

Truth be told, I feel this is one of his best works. As the 1980’s drew to a close and the slasher craze began to fade, Craven gave the 90’s a fresh start. In a decade full of lackluster remakes, and teenybopper horror, this is one that era’s high water marks. It’s a film that manages to capture and utilize what the director was best at.

When I think of Wes Craven, two important factors come to mind. The first was his ability to play upon our pre existing phobias and fears. He had a real talent for tapping into common phobias everyone possesses. In this one, it’s that childhood fear of the weird house in the neighborhood. You’ll find this angle in so many stories, not just horror. Remember the Radley house in To Kill A Mockingbird? There’s always fear of the unknown, and the curiosity of what goes on behind the walls of intimidating domicile. This phobia is further explored as we’re taken into a domestic situation that borders on the macabre. Everything we might have imagined as a child walking a neighborhood street is completely realized.

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The second factor of Craven I think of is his ability to bring terror home. We saw this in The Last House On The Left, and especially in Nightmare On Elm Street. He made us feel unsafe in our own homes, not to mention our own dreams. Suburbia has always been painted as a carefree and happy place, where the only thing that goes wrong is an over burnt steak at a Sunday barbecue. Both Craven and John Carpenter changed all that. Instead of a supernatural plane, the horror takes place in our own backyard. There’s no refuge, no retreat, and nowhere is off limits or safe. That white picket fence isn’t going to keep the monsters at bay, or your nightmares for that matter.

The People Under The Stairs might be Wes Craven’s most underrated film. Now that this man is no longer with us, it might be time to reevaluate this work. We should appreciate this as a filmmaker trying to adapt to a new era, yet staying true to his strengths.

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