Release Date(s)1991 (August 11, 2015)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
The following is taken from my review of the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of the film on Blu-ray:
“Wes Craven’s body of work doesn’t always come up wine and roses. Besides the Grindhouse classics The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, not to mention the enormously successful A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream films, he directed a string of movies that ranged from mediocre to awful. The People Under the Stairs is actually a film that’s trying hard to rise above the mediocrity, and succeeds, but not overtly.
The People Under the Stairs is probably one of Craven’s more overlooked films in the grand scheme of things. In the age of new appreciations of more forgotten films and the Blu-ray re-releases that go with them, Stairs has always been one that seemed to fly under the radar. Craven’s intention was to set up themes about racism in society and the average-looking American home having more skeletons in its closets (literally, in this case).
The film begins with young Fool, a kid from the ghetto, whose mother is in need of medical attention, but unfortunately, the family is too poor to pay for it. He decides to help rob the owners of the entire neighborhood, a family that is rumored to be quite wealthy. Once they get inside, they realize that it’s a house of horrors and that they have to escape before the house’s inhabitants get their hands on them, or before a deranged mother and father duo find them and kill them.
Overall, the film carries a somewhat odd tone to it. It never plays it completely straight, although there are some very dark scenes from time to time. Twin Peaks veterans Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are completely over the top as the aforementioned “Mommy” and “Daddy”. Their performances mixed with moments of genuine child abuse make for a film that doesn’t fully embrace a concrete tone, or even genre for that matter. The suspense works great in certain scenes, such as Fool’s encounters with the family dog Prince, or when he is thrown in with the film’s namesakes. But then you have McGill running around the house in a leather outfit with a shotgun, shooting at the walls in an attempt to hunt down a basement dweller who managed to escape. It teeters on the edge of schlock at that point. Still, it’s an effective and memorable film, one that’s languished for far too long without a proper home video release.”
I noted in that review that a stateside Scream Factory release of the film was in the works at that time. and now that it’s here, let’s compare it to the Arrow Video release and see which comes out on top. By the way, I don’t own the Universal bare bones Blu-ray, so I can’t make a comparison of the transfer on that one. Obviously, the first strike against the Arrow Video release is that it’s a Region B release, so unless you have the proper setup to watch it, you’re out of luck. However, the good news is that when it comes to the video quality, there is no clear winner between these two releases. Both transfers are equally good with some minor differences in assorted areas. As far as I can tell, both seem to be sourced from the same master. The major evidence of this is during Fool’s first encounter in the basement. I noticed a thin blue line running through the center of the screen for several frames. It’s likely a weak section of the negative that couldn’t be repaired digitally, but the point is that it’s present in both transfers, so I’m going to go ahead and call it based on that. Grain is much more textured in the Arrow Video transfer, while being more refined in the Scream Factory transfer. Scream Factory’s release doesn’t suffer from an overt loss of visual detail, but the grain level certainly isn’t as prevalent. As far as differences in color, I can’t find anything that was definitive, except that skin tones appear slightly more pale in the Scream Factory release. Black levels were also marginally better in the Scream Factory release. These are all very minor differences, but the most apparent difference between the two is that the Arrow Video release has a slightly lower contrast, more overall brightness, and is ever so slightly cleaner-looking. However, none of these differences made me choose one over the other. Both are great transfers and other than these tiny nitpicks, there’s not much difference between them.
For the audio, you’re given two options with the Scream Factory release: English 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD, whereas the Arrow Video release contains a single English 2.0 LPCM track. The 5.1 mix doesn’t do a whole lot to improve the atmospherics, but from time to time, some of the sound effects and music get a chance to open up in the rear speakers. To be succinct, it’s a very front-heavy presentation. I prefer to stick with the 2.0 track, however, as it’s how I’m accustomed to hearing the movie. For comparison’s sake, there isn’t much of an audible difference between it and Arrow Video’s LPCM track other than maybe loudness levels. Both tracks are clean, clear, and are a great representation of the film’s sound design. In order for a 5.1 track to have worked thoroughly here would have meant a complete and aggressive remix of the soundtrack from scratch. However, that’s just not necessary, and most viewers probably won’t care that much anyways. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
When it comes to the supplemental materials, Scream Factory has trumped Arrow Video. It’s worth noting though that these extras aren’t absolute either. There are two separate audio commentaries: the first with Wes Craven moderated by Michael Felsher and the second with actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen, and Yan Birch; the House Mother interview with actor Wendy Robie; the What Lies Beneath: the Effects of The People Under the Stairs featurette; the House of Horrors interview with director of photography Sandi Sissel; the Settling the Score interview with Don Peake; a bit of behind-the-scenes footage; the movie’s original theatrical trailer; a set of 3 TV spots; a vintage making-of featurette; a set of storyboards; and a still gallery. Many of these extras are brand new, and hat’s off to Scream Factory for getting Wes Craven to sit down for an audio commentary... that fellow could make reading the phone book sound good. And even though Scream Factory’s extras are much broader and feature more of the main players, the extras from the Arrow Video release, including a couple of interviews and an additional audio commentary, obviously couldn’t be ported over here (as is the case usually with overseas releases).
Horror fans stateside have been clamoring for a special edition release of The People Under the Stairs for a long time, even before Blu-ray came along, and the wait has definitely been well-worth it. This is one of Scream Factory’s strongest releases of the year and is very much worth your time. And if you’re wondering if the Arrow Video release is worth the import (that is, if I didn’t recommend it highly enough in my review of it), I would say yes. My feeling is that it’s a release that can sit comfortably on your shelf next to this new Scream Factory release.
- Tim Salmons