Of all the films Wes Craven made between the commercial peaks of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, this blackly comedic exercise ranks up there with The Serpent And The Rainbow as the best. Craven's clever script mixes fairy tale elements (wicked parents, lost children, a hidden fortune, etc.) with a storyline that touches on serious subjects like racism and child abuse to create an intelligent, socially conscious backdrop for the gruesome goings-on. The People Under the Stairs also benefits from solid performances that give dimension to its archetypal characters: Brandon Adams and A.J. Langer are sympathetic and believable in roles that are especially demanding for young actors and Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are deliciously over-the-top as the ultimate "bad parents." Craven's direction gives these performances a strong framework, striking an effective balance between stomach-churning shocks and quieter but no less chilling moments where the background of the house and its twisted family are explored. On the downside, The People Under The Stairs occasionally lets its ambition get out of hand: some attempts to lighten the grim story with humor fall flat and the last act incorporates some rather implausible twists to direct the storyline in an uplifting direction. Despite these occasional missteps, the film's frequent chills and startling imagination make it worth sticking with. It's a smart viewing choice for anyone interested in going beyond the hits in Wes Craven's filmography.