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‘The People Under the Stairs’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 06, 1991

Wes Craven has been directing downhill since his terror triptych of "Last House on the Left," "The Hills Have Eyes" and the original "Nightmare on Elm Street," so it's hardly surprising that he hits bottom with "The People Under the Stairs." For one thing, the preview promises more than Craven can deliver -- in fact, that's all he delivers. Those people under the stairs? They hardly figure and they scarcely scare.

In something of a departure, Craven has cast as the 13-year-old hero, Fool, a young African American actor, Brandon Adams (costar of Michael Jackson's "Moonwalker" video). This Fool rushes in where Anglos fear to tread: He's the captive of a ghetto tenement more frightening than anything Craven can dream up. Fool's mom has cancer and needs an operation, but the family is being evicted for being three days late on the rent. LeRoy, a ne'er-do-well family acquaintance, persuades Fool to help rob the landlord's house, where some gold coins are rumored to be hidden.

Big mistake! Turns out the slumlord and his wife, known as Man and Woman, inhabit a funeral home bigger than Adams-Morgan, which they keep stocked with salesmen, burglars and others meaning to drop in, not drop dead. It also turns out Man and Woman have been trying to raise a perfect boy-child out of babies snatched over many years. Whenever these unwilling adoptees see too much, hear too much or talk too much, out go their eyes and off come the ears and tongues. Then they're dispatched to the dark basement, which, like everything else in the house, is fortified so that no one can get out. Eventually, they all start looking like Cure fans.

Into this nightmare world comes Fool, suffering gladly once he teams up with the latest snatchee, Alice (A.J. Langer). They becomeavengers, racing through a house that has more hidden passages than "Finnegans Wake" and setting up an ending that both Danny DeVito and Frank Capra would appreciate. Unfortunately, all this is totally ludicrous and badly set up..

Craven also wrote the script here, based on a news story about California parents who kept their children locked in the basement for many years. That's scary -- and so is how far Craven has fallen.

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