It helps that I watched it alone, without other people talking through all the important exposition.
So. The People Under the Stairs is a Wes Craven movie from 1991 which tends to resonate with people my age. I was eleven when it came out, and it was the first Wes Craven movie many of my peers saw with parental permission. Which is not to say that it's anywhere near kid-appropriate.
The People Under the Stairs stars Brandon Adams (you recognize him from The Mighty Ducks and The Sandlot) as 11-year-old "Fool", who lives with his ailing mother and sister in a hellhole inner-city apartment whose management plans to evict them. Enter Leroy (a thinner-than-usual Ving Rhames) who shows up with a plan to rob the landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Robeson. Fool's not thrilled about the idea, but his mom needs medical care, and they need to hold onto their apartment...
Fool and Leroy go to the Robeson residence with their uh, "associate" Spenser, and Fool poses as a Bear Scout, but Mrs. Robeson won't let him in, so Spenser gains entry to the house by posing as a utility company employee. The Robeson's leave and Spenser doesn't come out, so Leroy and Fool break into the house, which turns out to be a lavishly furnished mansion full of booby traps and secret passages. It doesn't take long for Fool to trip over Spenser's dead body. Then Robeson's come back. They catch Leroy and deal him a fatal blow to the head, and then the story explodes.
Here's what I got out of the movie the first time: The Robesons are keeping their teenage daughter confined to her bedroom, and there are zombies living in the basement and crammed between the walls. Every once in awhile, Mr. Robeson dons a leather gimp suit--the kind made famous by that other Ving Rhames movie--and stomps around firing a shotgun into the walls. Also, one of the zombies is Peter Pan.
Look, as I said, the first time I saw it I was with people who were talking over it. Here's what actually happens: The Robesons are, indeed, keeping their daughter confined to her room, and when Fool gets a chance to talk to her, he learns that the basement is full of her former suitors, all of whom were found by her parents to be somehow lacking. They've all been mutilated and abused, and have devolved to a state of cannibalism. One of the boys, whose name is Roach, escaped into the walls, and now Mr. and Mrs. Robeson are having a hell of a time getting him out, which is where the whole shooting the walls bit comes in. Why the bondage suit? Why not?
The story gets weirder. The girl, Alice, turns out not to be Mr. and Mrs. Robeson's daughter, and Mr. and Mrs. Robeson are in fact brother and sister, which doesn't explain why they call each other Mommy and Daddy. Meanwhile, their tenants have decided that they don't like living in a slum, and have banded together outside the Robeson's house. And there's dynamite in the basement. A lot of dynamite...
I have mixed feelings about this one, and I'm not sure how much less mixed they'd be if I hadn't had to intuit my own version of the plot the first time. When I first saw The People Under the Stairs, I found it extremely confusing, and while it was less confusing the second time around, the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. Look, sometimes people keep other people locked up in basements. It happens, I guess. But it wouldn't happen like this in real life anywhere in the world...
...which I guess misses the point? Horror is part escapism, after all. If you can't suspend your disbelief, then you can't handle movies, I guess. Now that I understand the plot, I can appreciate the fact that Netflix calls it "an urban fairy tale". You have to approach it that way, or it just falls apart like it did for me the first time. That's definitely not a strength, but is it a weakness? I don't know. Probably not. Just, you'll appreciate this film a lot more if you have some vague idea what you're in for.
Anyway, Craven wrote and directed this one, and his work is relatively good here. He may have directed some of the best-known horror movies of all time, but I've never considered him a remarkable director. Upon its release, The People Under the Stairs was probably the best film he'd made. I think the casting adds a great deal to Craven's material, and Brandon Adams carries the movie well. I'd have liked to see more of Ving Rhames. Mommy and Daddy Robeson are played by Everett McGill and Wendie Robie who played "Big" Ed and Nadine Hurley in Twin Peaks, and I like seeing them as a completely different married couple here.
So is it a good movie? I still don't know. But it's a helluva weird one, and I can recommend it on that score alone. Just, y'know, tell your friends to shut up when the dialogue is going on.
Click here for the trailer.