Color, 1991, 102m.
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill
Universal (US R1 NTSC, Brazil R0 NTSC, UK R2 PAL, Germany R2 PAL, Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

In retrospect, it's stunning how much genre films got away with during the Reagan and Bush years. With little fanfare, that era bred such amazingly subversive tracts as They Live, The Stepfather, Society, and from horror's most sociologically conscious chronicler, The People under the Stairs. A surprisingly resonant effort from Craven's most difficult period (in which studio and MPAA interference sabotaged nearly all of his post-Elm Street efforts), this imperfect but fascinating study of urban blight decked out as a sick fairy tale was an obvious influence on such subsequent films as Trespass and Candyman. Our story begins as young Fool (Adams), distressed by his mom's illness and impending eviction, decides to accompany his sister's boyfriend, Leroy (Pulp Fiction's Ving Rhames), on a quest to swipe some rumored gold coins from the house of their mysterious, money-grubbing landlords who hold the entire neighborhood in a state of poverty and despair. Unfortunately it all goes horribly wrong, and Fool winds up trapped in an elaborate, spooky house filled with booby traps and hidden corridors, hunted down by the insane, inbred brother-sister owners (that memorable Twin Peaks couple, McGill and Wendy Robie). He also discovers the titular people under the stairs, the mutilated and rejected survivors of children kidnapped in an attempt to breed the perfect offspring.

Featuring such peculiar images as a shotgun-wielding McGill clad head to toe in black studded leather, this bizarre studio project represents Craven at his most imaginative, wheeling off in a different direction every twenty minutes or so. There isn't much in the way of explicit violence, but conceptually this is definitely disturbing material; Craven is obviously ticked off at the current state of affairs (one early suspense sequence uses Bush's bombing of Iraq as television accompaniment) and he gets his licks in with admirable skill. Unfortunately the somewhat over-the-top ending gets a bit too preachy, turning Fool into something of a Robin Hood figure with everyone happy and all the scales tipping back into place. Had Craven followed his thesis logically to the end (either as fairy tale or social criticism), the film should have ending on a darker and more ironic note, at least serving up nastier desserts for its villains. What's here is certainly worthwhile and nowhere remotely as compromised as his other films surrounding it; the dark and claustrophobic photography is generally effective, and the trapdoor-laden house makes for a diverting setting capable of knocking the characters and the plot itself around like a pinball machine. Bonus points for the acting, among the strongest of Craven's films.

If ever a Craven film called out for an audio commentary, it's... well, The Last House on the Left, which we already have, but surely this one is high up there, given Craven's ability to provide literate and illuminating discussion of his work. Unfortunately you'll only get a trailer if you buy this disc outside the US; in America, you don't even get that meager bonus. While Universal offers a slick and colorful anamorphic transfer, otherwise this smacks of a thoughtless rush job. Technically there's not much to quibble about; black levels look excellent (vital for a film like this) and the surround audio does the job nicely, showing off the dark score by Don Peake (and Graeme Revell, sort of; check out the soundtrack CD for a full explanation of this film's peculiar music history). If Shocker can merit a special edition (in Europe at least), certainly The Serpent and the Rainbow and this endearing oddity deserve the same treatment.

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