You’ve gotta love Wes Craven. His creative output could be frustratingly cavalier at times, but he brought so much to the horror genre, and his legacy lives on. Craven’s movies were terrifying, controversial, hugely successful, iconic, uneven and in some cases abject failures, but he was never scared to take risks and push creative boundaries, which means he was never less than entertaining. His misses invariably possess some kind of charm, and those movies that hit… well, they really hit. Even his middling productions stand out for one reason or another. For me, he’ll never quite have the stature of John Carpenter, but he breathes the same air.
1991‘s The People Under the Stairs is Craven in a nutshell, but before we get to that, let us take a moment to recall the late director’s rich and storied career. Ultimately, Craven will always be most synonymous with one of horror’s most notable creations: Fred Krueger. Some would see that as a negative, a sign that his output was inferior on the whole, but so monumental was Robert Englund’s horrifically scarred child killer-come-pop culture juggernaut that a then-fledgling New Line Cinema was dubbed ‘The House that Freddy Built’. It was the kind of game-changing concept that most directors can only dream of.
Craven would flounder in the shadow of Krueger’s success for a while thereafter — not because he was afraid to branch out as many critics supposed, but because the big studios, who were suddenly knocking down his door, wanted to feed off A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s success. This was never more apparent than with Deadly Friend (1986), a novel adaptation planned as a serious sci-fi drama that would succumb to the horrors of studio meddling. After a disappointing test screening, Craven was forced to add a series of incongruous nightmare sequences that transformed Deadly Friend into a bordeline-incoherent mess, leading the director and future Oscar-winning screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin to flat-out disown the movie.
Craven was too much of a rebel filmmaker to work under such constraints. His early work was both prodigious and controversial, particularly 1972‘s The Last House on the Left, a realist innovator that would ultimately find its way onto the infamous ‘video nasties‘ list following the Obscene Publications Act of 1984, and grungy, out-in-the-sticks exploitation flick The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which would lead to one of the crummiest horror sequels of its era in 1984‘s The Hills Have Eyes Part II, a pair of movies that display the good and bad sides of Craven in a microcosm. Low-key productions such as Shocker and The People Under the Stairs would keep the director mildly relevant into the barren 90s, but Craven wasn’t through yet. Not only would he revive the moribund Fred Krueger with innovative meta experiment Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, he would tweak that formula and wrap it in a cute commercial bow with self-reflexive slasher Scream, reshaping the horror genre for the third time in as many decades.
The People Under the Stairs is an odd card. It’s also one of Craven’s most interesting curiosities — a blend of Spielbergian adventure, macabre fairy tale and explicit, off-kilter horror. It’s also a very personal film, recalling the director’s strict catholic upbringing in ways that will leave you clawing at your eyes during truly unsettling scenes of parental torture. As odd as this description may sound, The People Under the Stairs is The Goonies with a sociopolitical voice and enough gore to send the kids to bed in tears.
Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The People Under the Stairs was inspired by real-life events, in this case the story of a suburban family who were prosecuted after alerting the police to an attempted burglary at their home. Instead of finding the perpetrators in question, the cops discovered a series of locked doors containing children who had never been allowed to leave the house, a grim sub-narrative that typifies the movie’s unholy matrimony of genres.
This event was key to the film’s macabre premise, though as you would expect from a horror movie right out of Craven’s imagination, the volume is turned up just a tad, the often jarring lost-gold-and-booby-traps formula bringing a level of mainstream levity to an extremely sobering tale of child abuse. It also allows the director to explore themes that are synonymous with his 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, a suitably dehumanised, fanatical pair who no doubt echoed Craven’s fundamentalist upbringing. They are also two of the most memorable characters he ever produced.
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’re left to starve and develop into cannibalistic zombies. They even have a daughter named Alice (as in Wonderland), who is particularly fond of one basement dweller, a tongueless gawk who’s escaped his prison and spends his days navigating the building’s wall cavities. Alice is your typical fairy tale princess burrowing in a rabbit hole of brutal oppression, one who’s in desperate need of a gallant prince.
That prince comes in the form of cutesy black kid Fool (Adams), an anonymous victim of the ghetto with a heart of gold. Fool’s sister is sick and in urgent need of medical attention, local tough Leroy (Ving Rhames) convincing 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 African-American 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’s the not-so-convincing pitch.
The People Under the Stairs was released the same year as the infamous Rodney King affair, an incident of police brutality that would lead to the LA Riots, a violent backlash against the kind of racial discrimination that keeps suspicion away from the door of white picket fence suburbia, regardless of what may lurk beyond. The film is a commentary on the abuse of power and the superficial façade that keeps it in place, on the dangers of a world built on convenient stereotypes and enforced privilege. As a tense and fantastical drama the movie still packs a punch. Craven is clearly having fun here, delivering a manic hybrid of morbid adventure that is skilfully underpinned by the filmmaker’s trademark wit and fondness for gallows humour.
That being said, The People Under the Stairs left me asking one question: who exactly is this movie aimed at? The adventure elements and the claustrophobic exploration of a seemingly boundless mansion are pure childhood adventure, as is a Chunk-from-The Goonies sub-narrative which teaches us that beauty is only skin deep. The film’s breathless pace and sense of undiscovered wonderment also seems geared towards a younger audience, featuring adolescent protagonists that only kids can truly relate to and empathise with, but what lurks beneath is strictly within the realms of adult entertainment. With scenes of physical and emotional abuse, instances of graphic violence and genuine terror, it feels just a little strong for a younger demographic, though its moral resolutions are borderline mawkish and pure, unrealistic wish-fulfilment. It’s all a bit muddled tonally.
Ultimately, it’s the deliciously sinister Man and Woman who steal the show — the former a leather-clad gimp brandishing a shotgun, the latter a 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 mainstream idealism.