Tagline: In every neighbourhood there is one house that adults whisper about and children cross the street to avoid.
Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Wes Craven
Starring: Brandon Quintin Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A.J. Langer, Ving Rhames, Sean Whalen, Bill Cobbs, Kelly Jo Minter, Jeremy Roberts, Conni Marie Brazelton, Josh Coxx, John Hostetter, John Mahon, Teresa Velarde, George R. Parker
18 | 1hr 42min | Comedy, Horror, Mystery
Budget: $6,000,000 (estimated)
For visionary independent filmmakers the biggest drawback to making mainstream movies are the studio sacrifices.
Wes Craven had been there before prior to horror/comedy The People Under the Stairs, which, for a movie with an 18 certificate, is an incredibly hokey affair. In 1984, the director would be forced into a sequel-setting finale for his ethereal, low-budget triumph A Nightmare on Elm Street, a decision which led to perhaps the most successful horror franchise in history, while at the same time preventing the original from achieving masterpiece status.
In 1988, the shadow of the movie’s success would stretch even further with horror/sci-fi effort Deadly Friend, a movie which was originally intended as a serious sci-fi drama, only to be mutilated beyond recognition following a test screening where people complained of a lack of gore. Unable to shake the Krueger curse, Craven would be forced to add tried-and-tested nightmare sequences which were completely out of context, resulting in one of the most baffling conclusions in horror movie history.
As far as I can tell, The People Under the Stairs suffers from the same problems. In spite of its R rating, it is a seriously muddled affair with a sometimes PG feel, which not only messes with the tone of the movie, but also the authenticity of the plot and its characters. More damning is a pseudo-political narrative which feels hackneyed and quite frankly condescending. Here, the victims of America’s political canvas are the black community, who were very much under the microscope following the beating of black motorist Rodney King in the same year the movie was released, and the subsequent backlash of the LA riots.
Our protagonist is a cutesy black kid named Fool (Adams) a victim of the ghetto with a heart of gold. Fool’s sister is sick and in urgent need of medical attention, and stereotypical gangster Leroy (Ving Rhames) has convinced the boy to take part in a Robin Hood style robbery so the spoils can be used to stop the family from being evicted by evil landlords who have established a tightfisted grip on the coloured community. Not only are the targets in question making a fortune off the miseries of the victimised, they have a secret stash of gold coins stored away in their mansion, riches that could be put to better use – at least that is the pitch.
Here, the Rodney Kings of the world are the victims, not those irrational God-fearing folk searching for a convenient minority to blame for their emotional misgivings. Quite a bold statement it seems, but this is less a sociopolitical commentary, more a fairy tale pantomime which proves patronising due to its exaggerations in characterisation. Are the inherently racist police force to blame here? Perhaps the predominantly white, corporate-controlled media, or maybe the government as a whole? Well, not quite. In fact, not at all.
Our antagonists are wealthy and white, sure, but not in any way recognisable as members of the American population, or even the population of planet Earth. Not only are they greedy and racist and unscrupulous, they are murderous and sadistic, deranged and twisted beyond all plausibility. The nutters in question are a brother and sister known simply as Man and Woman – yes, they are literally unnamed – an incestuous pair with a penchant for child kidnapping. Not only do they steal children, they keep them hidden in the basement where they are left to starve and develop into bestial, cannibalistic zombies. They even have a daughter named Alice (Langer), who is fully aware of these resident basement dwellers, and who is particularly fond of one creature, a tongueless gawk who has escaped the horrors of the basement and spends his time running around in the walls.
These are the ingredients for the kind of video nasty that once had censorship boards reaching for their crucifixes, and it is the aforementioned Man and Woman who steal the show, the former a leather-clad gimp with a shotgun, the latter a gilt-edged, child-scolding psychopath whose knife-wielding exploits would leave Norman Bates cowering in terror. Inevitably, it falls on Fool to free not only the girl Alice, but the entire hoard of albino zombies, who will presumably lurch into the open arms of society, perhaps even land a job, fall in love, apply for a mortgage and raise a family.
Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled zombie masses, and your ever so improbable studio idealism.
After running into a kitchen knife, a maniacally unperturbed Woman slides the blade from her kidney, beset on slicing her ever oppressed pseudo-child Alice, only to be devoured by a vengeful pack of cannibalistic basement dwellers.
Most Absurd Moment
After hiding behind a sofa and using Fool as bait for the family doberman, Leroy senselessly pops his head out and is brutally savaged by the dog. If that wasn’t ludicrous enough, Fool then drags Leroy towards a booby trapped door, dog in tow, and after he grabs the modified handle the three of them are electrocuted, performing the kind of slapstick line dance that belongs in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Having stumbled upon the body of their Caucasian buddy, Fool informs Leroy of his gruesome discovery.
Leroy: You seen Spencer?
Fool: I seen Spencer, alright.
Leroy: You found anything?
Fool: Something found him. He’s dead, Leroy. I think scared to death.
Leroy: Y-you sure?
Fool: You thought he was white before, you should see that sucker now!
Condescending racial endeavours and spuriously quixotic sentiments aside, The People Under the Stairs is actually a lot of fun. Landing somewhere between Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, The Goonies and Psycho, it is a somewhat mystifying affair, but technically Craven hits all the right notes, while the movie’s maniacal antagonists are sure to stay long in the memory.
VHS Revival is a non-profit venture. Any donation, no matter how small, will help towards the site’s running costs and ultimately enable us to grow. Thank you.