With a filmography that contains razor-fingered dream demons, desert dwelling cannibal clans and ghost-faced pop culture maniacs, it’s a legitimate shame that more positive press isn’t pointed the way of Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs, a typically high concept slice of horror that saw the horror legend tackling themes of capitalism, class and racial inequality.
There wasn’t really a single movie like it at the time, I mean, Bernard Rose’s superb Candyman also dealt with black poverty back in 1992 – and is technically the superior film – but it still examined the social injustice through the eyes of a rich, white woman, whereas Craven gave us a movie about black issues that actually had black protagonists. It might seem like a no brainer in these days where filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ryan Coogler enjoy large audiences for their socially layered productions, but unfortunately in the 90’s it was all too rare.
Young Pointdexter “Fool” Williams lives in a seedy, Los Angeles ghetto but has big dreams of becoming a doctor and movie his sick mother and his family out of this life of squalor, but matters get even more desperate when he finds out from his elder sister that they are due to be evicted by their greedy and elusive slum lords, the Robesons.
Leroy, a friend of Fool’s sister, has gotten wind of the fact that the Robesons’ wealth is vast and that they’re sitting on a stash of gold coins like a Tolkien-esque dragon and has cooked up a plan with his buddy to rob them with the assistance of Fool who agrees after he finds out his mother has cancer.
However, not long after breaking in, they find that the Robesons are not you average couple (or leastways I hope not) and in their deranged, insane paranoia, they’ve converted their house into one huge booby trap that’s a veritable maze of secret passages and traps. Even more disturbing is that “Mommy” and “Daddy” are religiously fanatical, are cannibals and have a bunch of mutilated, animalistic adolescents living in their basement who were once kidnapped away by the couple in past attempts in complete their twisted family unit.
Trapped in the house, both Leon and his buddy quickly fall before the onslaught of Daddy’s brutal, berserker rages and the couple’s flesh eating attack dog, Prince, but Fool manages to evade the snapping teeth and high powered weaponry with the help of Alice, the Rubesons’ current “daughter” and Roach, one of the feral kids who has escaped from under the stairs and now lives in the walls much to Daddy’s annoyance.
If Fool is ever going to give his family a better life – and save his own – he’s going to have to negotiate this literal house of horrors before these two rich maniacs literally eat the poor.
The People Under The Stairs, while successful, was kind of regarded with a state of confusion at the time due to its frankly bizarre tone. You see despite the fact that the film contains some stunningly heavy themes, it comes at them with a style that’s one part Last House On The Left to two parts Home Alone that chucks in a hefty child abuse plotline and lashings of gore alongside some almost pantomime humour with its vicious violence.
Craven, seemingly realising that if The People Under The Stairs were to be played entirely straight it would be borderline unwatchable, dilutes a bunch of the chills in favour of jet black satire, making the supremely memorable Robersons’ as ludicrous as they are monstrous. Old Wes always had a knack for creating a fully realised bad guy and he gleefully ladles on the weirdness here as Twin Peaks alumni Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are more than up to the task taking that weirdness and dialling it up to eleven. Actually revealed to be brother and sister whose colourful lunacy a born from generations of inbreeding eat human flesh, cut the tongues from their abused “children” and live their lives as a perverted parody of an all-American nuclear family. They are both repellently magnificent, Robbie screeching from under her huge, red pompadour and McGill rampaging through the house with a shotgun while clad in a studded gimp suit, blending cartoonish villainy with atrocities that are ripped from actual headlines.
As a counterpoint, the child hero, Fool (played by The Mighty Ducks’ Brandon Addams) is smart, brave and, most importantly of all, good and only gets roped into this endeavor by Ving Rhames swaggering Leon because he literally has nowhere else to turn if he’s going to provide for his family – a refreshing statement considering how much racial crime during the period was lazily written off as just gang related – and thank god there’s none of the white savior trope that Craven found unavoidable with The Serpent And The Rainbow.
However, despite coming armed with some hefty social metaphor, Craven wisely chooses not to cram it down our throats and instead laces it throughout the story, leaving it in full view for us to pick up on while we’re still free to enjoy the weirdness on display as the movie circles to an almost fairytale ending. It’s obvious the Rubesons are racist as shit, but its creepier if, instead of blurting out the N-word, Mommy claims she’d rather have “clean” (aka. white) people living in the property they own. “It’s almost as if we’re the prisoners.” she brazenly states to a police officer, referring to the crime rate and playing the victim despite the fact that we already know she has a basement full of abused tongueless, cannibal children locked away next to a vault full of cash.
It’s a fair statement to say that the ending gets away from Craven a little at the end with they being maybe a little too much back and forth about who has the true upper hand during the climax and some simply won’t get on board with an oddly perky shocker that gets a little goofy despite boasting harrowing themes of child abuse (we assume Daddy hasn’t made any moves on Alice yet, but considering he blows off steam by running around the house, firing off a shotgun in a gimp suit, it’s definitely, sickeningly, on the cards).
However, as a precursor to such similar, movies as Don’t Breathe and the continuing rise of black horror (it’s no surprise that Peele’s got the rights to remake it much in the same mold as Nia DaCosta’s Candyman), The People Under The Stairs sees Wes Craven’s talents in full effect as he whisks social commentary, satire, gore and a fuck-ton of booby traps into a blender and arguably turns in his best film from the near decade difference between the seismic releases of A Nightmare On Elm Street and Scream.
The people may be under the stairs, but this movie shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet.