*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Wes Craven

With Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, and Ving Rhames.

For Hollywood this has been a season of surprises, mostly disappointing ones. This is the time of year when what passes for “serious adult” films –not dramas necessarily, but films that tackle grown-up subjects–are supposed to thrive at the box office, a rule of thumb that has been hammered by the relative and outright failures of Billy Bathgate, Other People’s Money, Frankie & Johnny, The Butcher’s Wife, and Little Man Tate. The one positive surprise has been The People Under the Stairs, a shocker from horror veteran Wes Craven. Expectations on the part of Universal were so low that the film was released without preopening press screenings, yet it quickly became the number-one box-office performer in the country.

Although Craven has posted an uneven commercial record, you would think the creator of the Nightmare on Elm Street series would deserve at least a press peek for his latest venture. But such is the disregard in which horror films are held in Hollywood that only the most bloated and overproduced efforts get the regular PR treatment from the majors. Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula received more publicity going into production than Craven’s film got going into the theaters.

Still, in a field where brand names count for a lot, Craven has managed to insert his name in front of his movie’s titles, an indication of the seriousness with which he at least takes his work. In fact, low-budget horror is one of the last genres whose directors Hollywood is willing to allow a modicum of individuality. George Romero still works far from California and keeps his expenses low to be able to do what he likes, and John Carpenter scampered back to the protection of impecuniousness for Prince of Darkness and They Live, his best–and least molested–pictures in years.

Though released by Universal, The People Under the Stairs, like the two Carpenter films, was produced by the classy independent outfit Alive Films, best known for backing offbeat auteur Alan Rudolph. The last disreputable genre–which was born 75 years ago in the shadowy haze of expressionism–has once more merged with its artsy ancestry.

For Craven is nothing if not a self-conscious filmmaker and has long been embarked on a program of replacing horror’s usual sexual subtexts–which were more or less sucked dry by the lurid Hammer studio’s breast-and-fang epics of the 60s–with a social-issues subtext. His first two films, Last House on the Left (remember the famous radio chant “It’s only a movie”?) and The Hills Have Eyes, reconfigured exemplary middle-class nuclear families as efficient killing units. Last House on the Left was also a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s rape-revenge saga The Virgin Spring, with the metaphysical mumbling replaced by heapings of viscera (this was the movie in which an outraged matron bites off the penis of a rapist).

The People Under the Stairs finds Craven again mounting a bloody sociopolitical assault, only this time attacks on the general social structure have been replaced by an attack on the values of the Reagan era. By contrasting inner-city vulnerability and suburban defensiveness, Craven has inverted the usual criminal-victim equation of right-wing law-and-order rhetoric, depicting a world in which white, middle-class heterosexuals mount a horrific assault on the poor, the young, and the disenfranchised, mutilating and discarding anyone who doesn’t adhere to the strict ideology of their material hell. As attractive as this sounds, however, the film falls victim to Craven’s inability to stretch his premises through a whole movie. In A Nightmare on Elm Street he was able to counterbalance a conglomeration of effects with a thematic coherence; in The People Under the Stairs he loses control of his effects about midway, settling for Petit Guignol until his final shot, a powerfully grim caricature of post-Reagan urban America.

Yet the setup is mighty promising and expertly limned. On his 13th birthday a young African American (Brandon Adams), stuck with the nickname “Fool” by his tarot-reading older sister, is drafted into a housebreaking by LeRoy (Ving Rhames), a criminal friend of the family. Their target is the grim, haunted-looking home of the unnamed couple who own the liquor store and most of the decrepit apartment buildings in Fool’s neighborhood and who are trying to evict Fool’s sick mother. Fool’s attempts to penetrate the house disguised as a Boy Scout are rebuffed, but when Spenser, a third member of the scruffy criminal band, makes it inside, Fool and LeRoy quickly follow.

Once inside, however, the two discover Spenser’s gnawed corpse. And when they have to quickly hide when the owners return, they discover they’re trapped in a hellhole. The Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie)–or He and She, as they are alternately known–are racist murderers, delighted to learn they have intruders in their booby-trapped home. They make quick work of LeRoy and nearly catch Fool, but he stumbles onto Alice (A.J. Langer), a porcelain-faced teenage girl who’s being abused by the couple.

Alice tells Fool–by this point the names are irritatingly archetypal–about an entire colony of kidnapped boys who disobeyed the Man and Woman’s commandments to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” and were banished to a basement dungeon–after having the offending sense organ mutilated. Alice has escaped this treatment because she’s carefully watched her behavior and because she’s the only girl in the ersatz family and therefore a favorite–and favorite for discipline. Clued in to the network of secret passageways in the house, Fool is able to evade and fight the berserk adults long enough to turn the dehumanized hordes in the basement to his side. However, the real rescue comes when Fool’s sister mobilizes the poor residents of her ghetto neighborhood to march on the sinister residence.

Craven’s realization is, if anything, richer than his concept. By making the Man and Woman’s house a projection of their personalities, he automatically gives a social dimension to their dementia. Dark and foreboding, the house is the type that attracts gentrifiers, who of course dislocate the poor. The perverse impulses that underlie the adult couple’s apparent sociability is matched by the series of secret rooms in the house: the cellar cell for the tortured children, the secret arms caches, the alarm networks, the trapdoors. Perhaps more expressive are the sweating pipes and soiled sinks and toilets in the dark shadows.

With the imprisoned boys, who have only carefully limited moments on-screen, Craven has developed a motif that is at once accessible, sympathetic, and gruesome. The Man and Woman have deliberately kept their charges’ protein intake low to encourage the boys to eat the flesh of murdered intruders, so they are both stalkers and victims, cooks and cooked. When, in the cataclysmic climax, these beastly boys finally get out of the house, their easy escape into the crowd of poor people–which Craven has indicated includes criminals–is a clear statement of the film’s convictions about who exactly is responsible for creating the conditions that make crime one of the few possible options open to the victimized poor.

Unfortunately, Craven has succumbed, as he often does, to overstatement. McGill and Robie, for example, may not have gotten their training in radical theater groups, but their performances are pure agitprop, satiric caricatures meant to reveal their hypocrisy with as little distraction as possible. It’s tough in any horror film to present a plausible monster; here the effort is soon abandoned. With McGill running around in leather S and M suit and Robie screaming hysterical imprecations, it’s impossible to regard the Man and Woman in anything but their political incarnation. So while they may be wholly objectionable, they’re not really very scary.

Also, once Fool cottons on to the house’s setup, he’s left with little to do but run around the halls and tunnels until the cavalry shows up. This is regrettable, since Brandon Adams is a remarkably likable juvenile with none of the usual annoying affectations of child actors. However, for about 30 minutes he has little to do but look surprised and jump down a hole. And the audience is left waiting for the increasingly obvious table turning.

Craven makes one final visual identification that’s worth noting. Fool discovers a secret passageway while hiding in the bathroom, and all the crawl spaces ultimately end in long metal tubes that disgorge intruders with a plop into an unused basement furnace. The similarity to a toilet is hard to miss. And it’s in the basement that the Man and Woman keep the real object of their mania: a huge trove of cash, jewels, and gold accumulated through years of unfair rents and dishonest business practices. The identification of gold with feces is the most radical assertion Craven makes in the film, and it gives his political stance a moral strength that compensates, somewhat, for his lack of formal control. In the end The People Under the Stairs may be as misshapen as the people who live in this basement, but it might be as subversive too.