Vile jokes trip 'People Under the Stairs'

November 02, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The People Under the Stairs" is your average comedy about child abuse, mutilation and murder. It's a yecch! a minute.

Written and directed by Wes Craven in strokes so broad he could have used lipstick on a mirror, it plays off archetypal fears of dark places in old houses. In the sense that it tries to be primal, it is sometimes effective; in the sense that it tries to be entertaining, it's complete drivel.

It might also be regarded as Universal's pre-emptive strike on Paramount's upcoming "The Addams Family," because the comic-macabre elements seem of a piece with the same broad tone in the Paramount film. In fact, the movie's continual use of punch lines and ironic casting ("Twin Peaks' " Big Ed and Nadine are the villains) and other comedic riffs come as a complete surprise. Too bad they're never funny.

What we're left with is an unpleasant story about a demented brother and sister who kidnap children, mutilate them when they are "bad," and lock them in the cellar where they form a tribe of lost boys in a kind of horror-horror land. (They are, by the way, FTC the misidentified "people" under the stairs, since a movie called "The Abused Children Under the Stairs" would probably not make a lot of money.)

Both Everett McGill and Wendy Robie (the David Lynch refugees) have been instructed to overplay as grotesquely as possible and watching them eat the scenery and possibly the studio commissary as well grows rapidly tiresome. Our hero is a young black child (Brandon Adams) who is instrumental in righting the movie's considerable litany of wrongs, although it bothers no one affiliated with the project that his entry into the house was larcenous.

This is passed off as A-OK because, of course, McGill and Robie are not merely monsters on the scale of Bluebeard and Jeffrey Dahmer, but something far worse: landlords. Property being a crime, stealing it is mere liberation.

The movie is therefore quite a rarity: politically correct and morally reprehensible at once.

'The People Under the Stairs'

'The People Under the Stairs'

Starring Everett McGill and Wendy Robie.

Directed by Wes Craven.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

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