Starring: Everett McGill, Brandon Adams, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Bill Combs, Sean Whalen
Writer/Director: Wes Craven
I’ve liked some Wes Craven but the ’90s were not a time when I saw a lot of horror movies. So I saw this one without any particular background in his themes, motifs, yadda yadda. But I always liked the title of this one and wanted to get to it at some point.
It’s a pretty twisted film, focused on putting two innocent kids through hell. First we have Fool, a ghetto kid about to be evicted from his building. The other kid is Alice, who has been kept a prisoner of her disturbed, abusive parents in a large, fortified house in Los Angeles. Fool’s sister has a friend, played by Rhames, who uses Fool in an attempted burglary of the house, but Rhames and his partern are killed by the parents, Mommy (Robie) and Daddy (McGill; you may remember both from Twin Peaks), and fed to the people under the stairs, who are revealed as castoff children of Mommy and Daddy, who always wanted a girl and only a girl, even if they treat Alice awfully. Fool is left to explore the house, eluding Daddy’s shotgun and his vicious, human flesh-eating dogs, while befriending Alice and convincing her to escape.
Corman gives himself a ton to work with here, with the twisted Daddy and Mommy, haunted Alice in anything but a Wonderland, and her creepy, cannibalistic siblings who can pop up and out of all sorts of hidden doors. Plus he has a good cast and a decent if dated soundtrack, and even a little bit of an anti-racist theme. There are a few thrills and it’s suspenseful in parts, but never quite makes the most of its promising elements. That Daddy and Mommy are actually brother and sister isn’t surprising, but rather than seriously explore their insanity, Corman sticks to the easier, batshit route. I mean, it’s more horrific if you can almost believe that people like this could exist, and in fact, every day there’s some terrible news item about people not all that far from this, but Daddy and Mommy are just some entertaining, but unexplained and random bits of crazy stitched together like an, um, crazy quilt. Corman seems to want to get kinky, with Daddy running around in full bondage gear when he’s in a kiling mood, and Mommy definitely wearing the pants in the relationship, but Corman doesn’t actually get sexual here. It’s just window-dressing. Adams and Langer are good young actors and do fine, though maybe a little more time could have been spent on their new friendship and Fool’s attempts to draw Alice out of the house and into reality. The same goes for the people under the stairs, who might have a fascinating subculture, but all we really see is that they’re pale and mute and, understandably, vengeful. It’s fun to see a young Rhames with a mini-mullet going. Corman had all the pieces here for a pretty classic horror thriller, but the end result is only a middling success.