People Under the Stairs, The (UK - BD RB)
Chris takes a quick look at this early 90s Wes Craven horror flick on Blu-ray Disc
In every neighbourhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid…
Wes Craven, the master of terror who brought you the infamous The Last House on the Left, invites you inside another house of horror!
“Fool” may be a streetwise kid, but he makes a decidedly bad decision when he agrees to assist a family friend in the robbery of their landlord’s imposing homestead. What begins as a routine break-in soon begins to take a sinister turn as the would-be robbers find themselves trapped inside and face-to-face with the terrible secrets which lurk within the building’s walls – and under the stairs… (Taken from the PR.)
Arrow's press release for this title contains the words 'high definition digital transfer of the film by Universal Pictures', which probably tells a fair few of you all you need to know without reading any further. Divulging the source of the transfer was a wise move on Arrow's part, because it allows me to correctly apportion blame from some of its shortcomings. The image is eerily reminiscent of numerous other Universal catalogue tiles, insomuch as it looks to be derived from a dated source that has been filtered to reduce grain and then sharpened to bring out the 'detail' (not that there's a whole lot of that). The overall effect isn't as bad as some of their worst transfers, but unless you have a thing for clumpy, artificial grain and pronounced edge halos you're not likely to be terribly impressed with the image here. (You can also add a number of conspicuous film artefacts to the mix.) On the positive side the colour palette is strong and shadow detail is pretty good, even in the dark confines of the twisted basement.
I'm sure there will be those among you wondering why I'm being so critical - truth be told this is almost certainly the best the film has looked on a home format, and it's more of a disappointment than a disaster - but I have to call things as I see them. I've long-since gotten wise to Universal's shenanigans and it's not enough for a Blu-ray release to simply be 'better than the DVD' if the DVD wasn't any great shakes to begin with. It's fair to say that my frustrations are reflected in the scoring, but I don't think I've been too harsh all things considered. (In fact, I know people who would say I've been too generous.)
The disc features a solitary LPCM 2.0 Stereo track, which is fine by me. I'd much rather have a film's original audio than a third-party remix. As for the track itself, well it's surprisingly strong effort considering the film's age and relatively meagre budget. Obviously dynamic range isn't what you'd expect from a modern feature, but it's surprisingly expansive, frequently sounding wider than its two channels might suggest. There are some nice discrete touches peppered throughout, usually in the form of creepy sounds emanating from the walls of the house as the moans and groans of its inhabitants leak through the cracks. I never once had an issue with indistinct dialogue either, which is something that can occasionally be an issue on older films (and some newer ones come to that). Simply put, this is a strong, natural presentation that gets the job done.
Oh, there's one other thing worth mentioning. For reasons best known to themselves, Arrow has chosen to lock the ability to switch from the primary audio track to the commentary using the 'audio' button on the remote control. The only way to access the commentary is through the special features menu, which is a bit annoying. Oddly the reverse is not the case and when listening to the commentary you can freely switch between the two audio tracks... The disc also offers option SDH subtitles in English.
As is customary for their releases, Arrow has assembled a collection of bonus material that would put many higher-profile titles to shame (although it's not as jam-packed as some of their releases). Here's a brief run-down of what you can expect from the disc:
- Audio commentary with star Brandon Quentin Adams, moderated by Calum Waddell
- Fear Freud and Class Warfare: Wes Craven Discusses The People Under the Stairs
- Behind Closed Doors: A.J. Langer Remembers The People Under the Stairs
- Silent But Deadly: Sean Whalen Remembers Roach
- Underneath the Floorboards: Jeffrey Reddick on the Lasting Impact of The People Under the Stairs
- Original Trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Stephen R. Bissette
- Collectors booklet featuring new writing on the film, illustrated with original archive stills
Although clearly not accustomed to recording commentary tracks the now-adult Adams has a pretty good recollection of filming The People Under the Stairs. Most of this information has to be coaxed out of him by moderator Calum Wadell, but it's definitely worth a listen. The featurettes are a mixed bag, but all are generally entertaining and informative. 'Fear Freud and Class Warfare' features a typically candid Craven talking about the creative process and thematic elements, while A.J. Langer's recollections in 'Behind Closed Doors' provide insight into what it was like to work on the movie as a teenage actress. Sean Whalen's 'Silent But Deadly' interview focuses on how the actor brought a mute character to life using non-verbal forms of expression, while Final Destination scribe Jeffrey Reddick discusses his love of Craven's work in 'Underneath the Floorboards'. (Reddick's favourite horror film is the original A Nightmare on Elm Street). This final featurette actually has a minor authoring error, as it continuously loops rather than returning to the main menu. The on-disc extras are capped off by the film's original theatrical trailer, but Arrow's usual booklet and reversible artwork are also included with retail copies.
I hadn't seen Craven's suburban horror since its 1992 VHS releases, so this viewing revealed a lot of subtext that wasn't readily apparent to me as a sixteen year old living in rural England. It's a smart little flick that subverts viewer expectation from the get-go, features some very decent performances from its principals, and is funny to boot. While the visuals are undoubtedly better than any previous home edition they are still somewhat lacking, but in licencing the transfer Arrow were very much at the Universal's mercy. Thankfully the aural aspects are solid and the bonus material, while not as comprehensive as some of their releases, is both entertaining and insightful. I'd definitely recommend the disc to fans of the film and Craven fans in general, even given its shortcomings, but in this case forewarned is most certainly forearmed.
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 4th November 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: LPCM 2.0 Stereo English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurettes, Trailer, Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A. J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen, Kelly Jo Minter
Genre: Comedy and Horror
Length: 102 minutes
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