Wes Craven had pretty much ditched his early style by 1991, when The People Under the Stairs was released. Stuff like Deadly Friend and Shocker were basically bereft of the surreal mean-spiritedness that made Last House and The Hills Have Eyes such striking works. So it's odd that this film seems to be a blend of the two Cravens. In some ways, it's a grim throwback—there's some legit nastiness happening as we wind through the plot. But we've also got Craven-the-entertainer's presence, in the comedy and the slick shots. It's an engaging, if not super-successful, mix.
Fool is named Fool because his sister is into Tarot cards, okay. Their family is about to be evicted from their slummy apartment because mom has cancer and no one is winning bread. So a family friend enlists Fool in a great house robbery plan. Unfortunately, they rob the house of the craziest people in town, who happen to have people under the stairs. The stair-people are monstrosities worthy of having their own movie, but they take a backseat to Home Alone-style house traps for much of the film.
The real villains are Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie), who seem to have wandered into this film from a John Waters/David Lynch date night. They're perverse rich people (much like Wes Craven himself!) who are the real power behind the degradations of the ghetto. They own property for which they charge exorbitant rents and use the proceeds to buy more secret passageways and more leatherman-slave outfits.
This is not a subtle script. But it is an ambitious one. We get straight horror, blatant fairy-tale nods, unnecessary comic hijinks, and allegories aimed at the heart of capitalism. Unsurprisingly, this glut of stuff doesn't blend seamlessly, so it sometimes feels like we're switching genres as much as we're switching rooms. Speaking of rooms, we spend a lot of time in them and a jarring amount of screen time is devoted to interiors. That, along with the rather limited script, gives this thing the feel of an overlong episode of Tales from the Darkside. There's just not enough story to justify a feature here. At one point, there's an escape from the house, but then we get to re-enter the house later and watch an escape all over again!
I think there is promise here and the story would benefit from A) being fleshed out with subplots, so we don't have to watch the same story twice and B) having a different director at the helm. While I was watching this, I was dreaming about someone with a flair for mean bastardry being at the helm. If TCM-era Tobe Hooper had made this, there would be more grime and fewer punches pulled and it might have been a classic. As it stands, People Under the Stairs is intriguing and worth watching, but ultimately not cohesive enough to be a winner.