The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Dir. and written by Wes Craven
starring Brandon Adams, Everett McGill, Wendy Robie, A. J. , Langer, Sean Whalen, Bill Cobbs, Ving Rhames
By my count, I’ve been writing this blog for more than 3 years and I have written well over 200 reviews. In that time, I’ve without doubt seen at least three times that many movies that I didn’t write about, for whatever reason, either I didn’t have time or I didn’t have anything I thought was worth adding to the discussion. Why do I mention this? Well, because there’s an amazing keyboard shortcut which is going to change your life. Anytime you’re looking at a computer screen, hit ctrl (“control”, not “key-tar-al.” And get yourself a tab.) + “F’”. This searches that screen for whatever word or phrase you type into the box. Helpful, no? OK, now do me a favor. Check every review I wrote before 10/12/2013 for the phrase “profoundly brilliant.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Not there, right? Well, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is a profoundly brilliant movie. That’s not the same as saying it’s a good movie. On it’s surface, it’s just a nicely-made kid’s horror/comedy, not too distantly related to something like THE GATE (though way more fucked up). A fun, imaginative and depraved one, but by itself it wouldn’t be anything special enough to have me gush over it like this. I’m not claiming this is THE SHINING.
What it is, though, is a profoundly brilliant movie. Not in it’s technical accomplishments, not even in it’s artistic achievements. Purely through the fact that this is a film which desperately, desperately needed to be made, and it turns out only Wes Craven had the balls to do it. Because this is not actually a horror movie about the literal people under the stairs (although there are some). Instead, it’s a movie about the metaphorical people under the stairs. Which, as Craven has it, is all of us.
Allow me to explain. See, this is a movie about a young black kid named “Fool” (Brandon Adams -- his name has to do with the tarot card but I don’t quite understand exactly what that means) who gets unwillingly dragged along on a burglary by his uncle Ving Rhames. Fool is a sharp kid (despite the name) and doesn’t want to get involved in this foolishness, but his back is against the wall because his mother has cancer and can’t work, and he’s about to be evicted by the rich white assholes who as a bonus are the exact people that they’re about to rob. This makes it one of the only great horror movies --besides, obviously, CANDYMAN-- to overtly take on race and class issues that were reaching a boiling point in LA in the early 90’s (perhaps you remember). Right in the setup there’s a brilliant evocation of the conflict between haves and have-nots. But wait, it gets better.
So, things go awry and Fool and his uncle end up in the house as the suspicious owners come home. But here’s the thing: the Robesons (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) are some hardcore fucked up psychos who call each other “Mommy” and “Daddy” (is there any creepier phenomenon than old married couples addressing each other that way?) and do not look kindly on trespassers in their house who might discover that they’re keeping their “daughter” Alice (A. J. Langer, My So-Called Life) locked up for what are strongly implied to be severely unpleasant sexual purposes. As if that weren’t enough, they have a bunch of mutilated victims who know too much chained up in their basement (the titular characters) who they have been (it’s implied) feeding human flesh and doing god knows what else to.
Let’s stop and think about the symbolism here. Fool knows that burglary is wrong, and is forced into it only because his family is in such desperate straits that he has no options, and because his uncle is Ving Rhames and you just don’t say no to Ving Rhames. But in most movies, he’d be the villain here, the guy who invaded the sanctity of the home and victimized the poor white people who are just trying to live their lives, they can’t help it that they’re rich and he’s poor (in fact, Wikipedia hilariously lists this as a “home invasion thriller,” which is technically accurate but not quite the same, is it?). Craven, though, wants us to know that these people are the real bad guys, and wants us to know just how sadistic and perverse these assholes are behind closed doors, far away from the prying eyes of the cops who are more interested in busting people like Fool.
But wait, it gets even better, because we have two more groups at play here. This is not a simple black/white dichotomy, we also have the poor traumatized “daughter” Alice (I think the Through the Looking Glass implications of that name are intentional) who must abide by the very strict “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” code imposed upon her by her “parents.” She knows the horrible things they’re doing, but she doesn’t dare speak about them or acknowledge at all, for fear not only of the punishments that will befall her, but also the punishments that will be visited on anyone she tells. She represents the bourgeois whites, analogous to the victimized black families Fool represebts in many ways (and in this case, literally being fucked over by the same people) but desperately dependant on the crumbs they get by tacitly supporting the rich and powerful whites who control their lives. She is a character even more trapped by this horrible power structure, but far less able to rebel against it since even admitting the horrors she is privy to has dire consequences. And then you’ve got the people under the stairs themselves, trapped in a horrific nightmare world where they’re surviving (it’s implied) on the dead bodies of other people thrown down there by “mommy and daddy.” They’re mute not out of choice, but because their tongues have been cut out and their ears cut off (representative of the silent masses who are too poor to even have their voices heard above the booming demands of the Koch Brothers of the world). They’re essentially depicted as without race, mutilated monsters who have suffered so much that they’ve taken up cannibalism to survive, barely clinging onto their sanity and with no hope whatsoever of escape. They’re the bottom rung of the social ladder, people who’ve been turned into beast through humiliation and deprivation, and in their pain have turned on each other instead of the real oppressors.
I mean, it’s all such a perfect analogy for the wealth and power inequalities in modern American society that I can hardly believe anyone could have missed it, but maybe it’s just that the intervening 20 years have cast these classes of American into even starker contrast.* Some reviews admit it has elements of social commentary, but guys, come on, this is a complete metaphor for the stratification of American society and the forces which prevent the aggrieved parties from rising up and demanding better treatment. And it’s all done within the context of this outrageous, depraved, broad, and mordantly hilarious horror freak show. Is that not simply the ballsiest fucking concept you ever heard in your life?
Let me take a moment, too, to talk about how good Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are. Apparently Craven cast them because he liked them as Big Ed and Nadine, another on-screen couple in TWIN PEAKS. But truth be told, they’re both pretty boring characters on that show, Nadine in particular never seems to have anything interesting to say or do. But here, wow, they fuckin’ go for it. Both of ‘em are turned up to 11, and as much as I always enjoy seeing McGill it’s Robie who walks away with this one. She’s funny and absolutely terrifying, but the best thing she captures is the sense of moral outrage she has about the whole thing. How dare someone come into her home and try to plant evil thoughts into her daughter? She commits to this role so brilliantly that you absolutely believe she feels this way at the bottom of her heart, that she’s the victimized party here. Ain’t it the fuckin truth? You try to take a little more of the pie so you and your family can pay the rent and put food on the table, and these rich fuck-o’s act like you ran over their dog.
A lot of people seemed to criticize the broad, comic tone of this one when it came out, but frankly Craven is smart enough to know exactly the right notes to hit here to keep it feeling tense and creepy but not let it turn into grim, depressing misery porn. When the inevitable remake comes along (Craven was talking about remaking this one along with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) I'm sure they'll turn it into one of those tiresome modern horror movies with a gray, dull palette, gloomy teenage protagonists, and an emphasis on rubbing your face in the "gritty" stomach-churning depravity of it all. I mean, it wouldn't be hard to do; this may well be the most conceptually fucked up American horror movie since the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. But Craven keeps it equal parts nightmare and theme park ride, never letting the premise become so upsetting that it slows the picture's energy. He knows that if you're going to try to give people a genuine social message, it's always going to go over better if they're already smiling. The underlying social issue's he's addressing are depressing enough on their own, piling on the misery even more would quickly risk alienating audiences and having them simply stop listening -- and besides, a cultural critique this puckish needs bombast more than nuance anyway.
Anyway, this is a fun horror movie that features Everett McGill firing a shotgun into the wall while wearing a full gimp suit and a bunch of other disturbing ass shit that only a true master like Craven could dream up. It would be a fun and scary ride even without the social commentary, but the fact that it’s in there --and so perfectly synched up with the plot that it never turns into overt moralizing-- pushes this one into the fuckin’ profoundly brilliant category. Interestingly, there’s a character in this film played by Sean Whalen, he’s one of the people under the stairs who managed to escape the basement, and is now sneaking through the walls and crawlspaces to cause trouble for the homeowners. He can’t speak himself, but if he can’t prevent the bastards from getting away with it, he can at least make sure it isn’t easy. Part of me wonders if Craven identifies with this character on some level. Bu 1991, he’d come from a total nobody to a pretty successful artist, but then again not quite successful enough to be a power player. Maybe he felt that if even if he’s not in a position to personally stop the kind of brutal injustice he’s lampooning here, he’s at least in a position to make it a little uncomfortable for the powers that be by releasing movies like this and reminding people just how fucked up this whole system is. Maybe it won’t really do much good, but at least it feels good to finally watch a horror movie which squarely takes aim at the depraved insular assholes who are getting rich off the rest of us, and show them up as the real villains. For all us people living under the stairs, it’s a welcome sight indeed.
*Although at least someone must have picked up on it, because an LA Hip-hop group appropriated the film’s name for themselves in 1997.