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
18 | 1hr 42min | Comedy, Horror, Mystery
Budget: $6,000,000 (estimated)
Wes Craven would front some screwball productions during his time as a mainstream horror director.
Perhaps the most famous of these was sci-fi/horror mash-up Deadly Friend, the story of a pallid robotics whizz-kid who uses a microchip to Frankenstein his late girlfriend with typically dire consequences. Craven would receive widespread criticism for his efforts, particularly for a series of nightmare sequences that were distinctly at odds with the movie’s premise, the kind that seemed to ape his most successful mainstream venture A Nightmare on Elm Street, a film that he was accused of being unable to move on from.
This backlash was misdirected. In reality, Craven had intended his movie as a serious sci-fi drama until a test screening saw it mutilated beyond all recognition. Krueger had made such an impression on the horror landscape that audiences wanted more of the same. It didn’t matter that Craven had set out to distance himself from the horror genre for fear of becoming exclusive to it. This was the director’s first major studio venture, and he would learn very quickly that it was the honchos at Warner Brothers who would have the final say. After all, this was a money business.
It is easy to see why critics were quick to condemn Craven. His intentions may have been honourable, but the director would become as synonymous with muddled oddities as he would would game-changing concepts during his time behind the camera. In order to become a game changer a cavalier approach is almost essential, and not every experiment goes exactly to plan. For every Scream there is a Swamp Thing. For every Wes Craven’s New Nightmare there is a Shocker. Regardless of how muddled or peculiar some of Craven’s stranger entries can be, they are by and large enjoyable on some level.
The People Under the Stairs is one of his more interesting curiosities. It is a blend of Spielbergian adventure and explicit horror. It is The Goonies with a sociopolitical voice and enough grue to send the kids to bed in tears. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street the movie was inspired by real-life events—in this case a family who were prosecuted after alerting the police to an attempted burglary on their home. Instead of finding the perps in question, the cops instead discovered a series of locked doors containing children who had never been allowed to leave the house. What we get in The People Under the Stairs essentially happened for real.
This is key to the movie’s premise, although as you would expect from a horror movie the volume is turned up just a tad, and the often jarring lost gold and booby traps formula is no doubt a decision that was made to provide levity for an extremely sobering tale of child abuse. It also allows Craven to explore themes that are synonymous with is work: the superficial injustices of society, the existence of horror in everyday life and the ability to overcome such predicaments as a unit. All of this is represented by the movie’s crazed antagonists, wealthy siblings known simply as Man and Woman. The maniacs in question are an incestuous pair of wealthy landlords 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. Alice is your typical fairy tale princess lurching in a neverland of stark and brutal realities.
Our prince is a cutesy black kid named Fool (Adams), a nameless 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 prevent 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—or at least that is the pitch.
The movie was released in the same year as the infamous Rodney King affair, an incident of police brutality that would ultimately lead to the LA Riots, a violent backlash against the kind of racial discrimination that keeps suspicion away from the door of picket fence suburbia, regardless of what may be going on inside. 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. The movie is a commentary on the abuse of power, and the superficialities that keep it in place.
As a tense and fantastical drama the movie packs quite the punch, and in spite of the transparent social commentary Craven is clearly having fun with this one, and when it comes to the movie’s horror elements it is easy to simply switch off and admire a master of the craft. That being said, the movie left me asking one question: who exactly was this movie marketed at? The adventure elements and the claustrophobic exploration of the seemingly boundless, labyrinthine mansion is executed with the kind of panache that would leave kids and teenagers breathless, but what lurks beneath is strictly in the realms of adult entertainment, and with a couple of peewee protagonists to boot.
With scenes of physical and emotional abuse, graphic violence and genuine terror, it at the same time feels just a little strong for such a demographic, though its moral resolutions are borderline mawkish and unrealistic wish-fulfilment. The People Under the Stairs includes ingredients 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 brandishing a shotgun, the latter a gilt-edged, child-scolding psychopath whose knife-wielding exploits would leave Norma 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.
Running deep into the blade of a kitchen knife, an unperturbed Woman slides the weapon from her kidney, beset on slicing her ever oppressed pseudo-child Alice, a maniacal effort that sees her 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!
Mawkish resolutions and muddled convictions 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, and the movie’s frenzied antagonists are sure to stay long in the memory.